Last week, I attended a lecture—part of an annual series of ethical reflections—given by a former colleague and wise, young friend whom I greatly admire. He spoke about the importance of inclusion—honoring our differences instead of staying within our separate tribes—and about the need for practicing the small acts of kindness that can bind people of different persuasions into the whole cloth of community. He reminded us that a single gracious act can help to heal this broken, weary world: a smile, an unexpected courtesy, a friendly invitation, even an honest question that reflected genuine interest in someone else’s story can help to unlock the giant, cast-in-bronze doors that guard our cathedral selves.
It’s no secret that we live in a deeply divided nation on a deeply divided planet. All too often, we stand on opposite shores of vast oceans, shouting at each other. There are a few of us who have too much and too many who don’t have enough. There are racial divides, political divides, gender divides. Some of us are well-fed; too many others go to bed hungry. There are the clothed and the naked, the comfortable and the homeless, the settled and the migrant. Some of us are vehemently pro-choice, others are adamantly pro-life. We’re either believers or infidels. We either trust in science and honor its rules, or we construct alternative realities that serve and advance our own particular purposes.
It seems to me that if we are ever to span, or even begin to shrink, these yawning chasms, we’ve got to emerge from our own self-centered bubbles and learn to live together. The first step in meeting that challenge lies in listening to each other’s stories. Not just the ones that resemble our own, but especially the ones told in different ways and in other tongues.
Cultural change never happens overnight; it’s glacially slow, drip-by-drip. Moreover, it cannot be mandated from above; it has to come from within. But it can begin with small acts of inclusion by individuals—people like you and me. If we truly want to bridge our cultural divides, every one of us must be willing to engage with people whose beliefs and practices are different from our own. We must stop listening to the ear worms inside our own heads, and truly hear other peoples’ stories.
We learned a century ago that a long journey always begins with a single step. But in last week’s lecture, my friend mentioned another way of expressing that same aphorism, attributed to philanthropist W. Clement Stone: “Small hinges swing big doors.” Bingo!
I am, by nature, an observer. But observing—even observing and commenting—isn’t enough anymore. A hinge is only a metal mechanical bearing that connects a door to its frame. It allows that door to open or close by rotating—theoretically simple, but in this metaphorical context, it gets a bit more complicated. If each one of use were willing to be a little hinge, then maybe collectively, we could swing open the big doors that have shut us off, one from another. Maybe that’s how we can begin to reconnect, to find more common ground.
It’s not hard; it just sounds hard. I think all that is required of you and me is a commitment to engage with another person whose story is different from our own. Maybe just once a day, maybe more; that way, it might even become a habit. And if each of us were to make that same commitment every day…well, you get the point.
Small hinges swing big doors. Be a hinge.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine.
Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.net.