Water in the Desert: Finding Common Ground from Disparate Experiences

In today's day and age it feels like everything is polarizing- politics, religion, whether the dress is blue and black or gold and white. We tend to have hard and fast opinions on so many things and cling to them as if our lives depended on it. Don't get me wrong, I have plenty of strong opinions, but I think we often fail to appreciate where the "other side" is coming from and as a result simply end up talking at one another rather than having a discussion. Our opinions generally do not come out of thin air. They are shaped by our socioeconomic status, upbringing, experiences, and so many other factors. We are each coming to the table with a lot of baggage and unless we unload and acknowledge some of that, we may never be able to find common ground and work together to improve ourselves and our communities. 

Imagine you've been walking through the desert for hours. It is hot and you are lost and you've finished all of the water you were carrying. You started this hike after a seven hour drive because your demanding boss at the job where you are underpaid and unappreciated sent you to explore a potential job site that probably won't pan out. Your cell phone battery has died and you haven't seen another human in quite some time. You are starting to panic. Your mind starts racing- "How will I get out of here? What will happen if I don't find some water soon? Why would my boss send me here?". Then you remember a horrific story about a relative of yours a few generations back that got lost in the woods and died of dehydration. Just when you are about to enter a full blown panic attack, you notice a well-dressed man sitting in the distance. As you approach you see that he has an ice-chest at his feet. He offers you some cold water, and access to his cell phone, for the hefty price of $100. You aren't carrying that kind of cash on you. When you explain the situation and plead with him in desperation, he does not budge. His offer and lack of empathy piles on top of your exhaustion and fear. It infuriates you. Here is a man, sitting in the middle of nowhere, preying on innocent people who are desperate for help.

In the midst of your fury, just as you are about to beat the man selling water, I approach. I am wandering the desert on a job as a successful landscape photographer. My employer sent me here with essentially unlimited cash since this is an area of the world that has never been photographed. I am on top of the world because I have gotten some wonderful shots during my trek. I have a GPS system so I won't get lost. I've only been out for a couple of hours this morning and I know that my 5-star hotel, complete with spa and world-renowned chef is waiting for me at the end of the day. When I approach you and the man with the water, I'm thirsty, but not desperate since I have an abundance of water with me and know that my hotel is just a thirty minute hike away. Despite this, I buy some water from him anyway. I think to myself- "What a smart entrepreneur...there are so few employment opportunities here and this money will help sustain his family for quite a while.". It is an act of what I believe to be generosity. You are baffled and find yourself thinking- how can this person not see the injustice happening here? How can she support this monster? I smile at you both and go on my way, assuming you are also a happy traveler having a wonderful experience in the desert. 

You and I are standing in the same place at the same time sharing a common experience, but our feelings and thoughts about the situation could not be farther apart. Why is that? Are either of our opinions unjustified? Not really. We simply started at different places, we have access to different resources, and our knowledge, current experience, and future outlook are quite different. But if you took some time to explain to me about your experience and your fear of dehydration and your desperation, and I truly listened, rather than judging you for not carrying enough water or bringing the proper tools out here, I bet we could find common ground. I'd be able to empathize and understand how scared you must be. I might rethink my experience, finding gratitude for everything I have and also a commitment to do better and not assume everyone has shared in my good fortune. I might see the man selling water in a different light, knowing he deprived you of something you needed to get back to safety. And you might be able to appreciate why I am so ignorant and did not offer you some help. All it would take is a little time and open dialogue for us to find common ground. 

Although this is a bit of an extreme (and admittedly imperfect) scenario, the general principle remains true- one key to finding common ground is recognizing where the other person is coming from. The only way to do this is dialogue with people who do not share our opinions or experiences. To be clear- dialogue is about open, calm, trusting communication without judgement or condemnation. And just because somebody else's experience and opinions don't match ours or our understanding of the world, we do not need to question the legitimacy of their experience or adamantly defend the validity of our own. Both are valid, both are real and openness is so important to bridging the gap. At the end of the day, we don't all have to see eye to eye on everything, but I wish we would all make a little more effort to understand one another. It's a good first step that will benefit all of us.