In a time when Americans seem more divided than ever, the suggestion that we "make more room at the table" continually comes to the surface as one way of addressing issues, figuring out how to move forward, and finding common ground. Making more room at the table means creating space for people who aren't already part of the conversation. There are a few ways this can happen. Making more room at the table could mean buying a bigger table. While that's an okay approach to making more room at the table, it takes effort. You have to find a new table you like, get rid of the existing table, re-configure the seating arrangement, buy more table settings. By the time you do all that, people aren't even hungry anymore...they've found somewhere else to eat. Luckily, there is another way to make more room at the table....everybody scooting in, making themselves a bit smaller, so there's room at the table you already have. When you add somebody to the table in this way, all the attention is focussed on them- people make sure they have silverware, pass the food, explicitly welcome them. Making room at the table is not just about creating space, it's also about making yourself a bit smaller so that the needs, opinions, and experiences of those you are asking to join you can be elevated.
So how can we make ourselves smaller? Make space at the metaphorical table?
Here are a few ideas:
- De-center yourself. Sometimes making space at the table means intentionally stepping away from the center of the circle. In stepping away from the center, you are able to widen the circle and shift the focus. Move from your favorite seat. Offer your seat to somebody else. Take the corner seat that nobody wants. It's so easy to navigate the world as the star of our own show instead of playing the supporting role. Even in movies and books, the main character needs to be sidelined at times so that another character has the space they need to work out an issue, to develop.
- Intentional Silence & Deep Listening. Life Coach Heather Plett offers this: “Intentional silence is one of the most important principles of holding space. To hold space for other people (and for ourselves) we have to know when to speak and when to remain silent. When our egos get in the way, we want to offer advice, improve on someone’s story, control the outcome, or at least let people know how smart we are. All of those things are detrimental to the process of holding space. They draw attention away from the person you’re holding space for and draw it toward yourself.” Sometimes the best thing we can do to make space at the table is be quiet and honor the voices that need to be elevated. Being heard is a way of being loved and truly listening is a way loving well. We don't always have to be the savior, the expert, the champion. When we listen without worrying about what we are going to respond with, we are able to process things more carefully and see the humanity in others, the things that connect us.
- Make a relational covenant. Perhaps you need to make a promise to yourself to recognize that we can be bound by the way treat each other more than by shared beliefs. I am uniquely situated given my evangelical upbringing and my now more progressive beliefs. I have people in my life who are deeply conservative and those who are deeply liberal. At the end of the day, I can choose to always search for the humanity in others and value our commonalities more than I seek to change their belief system. That doesn't mean I am silent about my beliefs, and it doesn't mean we have to be best friends, it just means I try to honor the humanity in others, value the many wonderful things about them, and recognize when we need to take a step back from the debate and reconnect as humans.
How are you making space at the table?
How can you make yourself smaller so that there is space for others?
How can you practice these values in your life?
I originally wrote this post back in the summer during the heated moments leading up to dramatic Senate vote on healthcare. I tucked it away in my drafts folder and thought "not now". Sometimes that's how writing is. I'm too close or too emotionally involved or too defensive to know if my words are coming from a good and healthy place. So I file them away and think "maybe one day I'll be able to use these". In light of everything going on with the NFL, this post popped up in my mind and I think it's a great time to share it.
Every now and then I see somebody on Facebook making the plea for people to stop talking about politics. "Facebook is a place for you to share what's going on in your life" they say. "It's a place to post pictures of your kids and talk about your vacation" they plead. It's not a place to talk about politics. But there is no "right place" to talk about the things that matter deeply to you, that affect the most important parts of your life.
As a middle class, educated white woman, I have a lot of freedoms that allow me to live as if politics can be put in a box, placed on a shelf, and forgotten about until it's convenient for me to pick it back up. I can choose not to think about political things whenever I feel like it because very little of what I do is politicized. More often than not, I have the power to live, speak, think, and act how I choose without being denied the access, protections, and freedoms to do so. But not everyone has this same level of freedom. Things only become "not political" when they don't directly affect us and we can check out and act like they aren't happening without concern for how the outcome will affect our lives.
This recently came to life for me over the healthcare debate. As a parent to a child with a disability, I can't not think about health care. I obsess over whether my son will have access to adequate health care. I worry that after he meets a lifetime max that he won't be able to get treatment for something treatable because somebody in power decided his life was too expensive. I call senators, I cry about it, I think about it almost constantly, I go to protests, I talk about it incessantly to anyone who will listen- to my friends, at my job, on-line, over dinner. It feels like life or death to me. I feel like I am watching a group of powerful (mostly white men) decide whether my son will live or die. That may sound dramatic, but that's literally how it feels sometimes. And when an issue hits that close to home, you'll do anything to change it, to bring attention to it, to get people talking about it.
I will never know what it feels like to be part of a group that is routinely marginalized. I have only a glimpse of what it feels like to watch people in power decide what you can and can't do/have/be. I will never know what it feels like to approach every interaction with a police officer as if it is life or death. I will never know the fear of somebody threatening to take away my citizenship or keep my from seeing my family. I don't fear that I will be harmed for practicing my faith. I don't know what it's like to not be able to access adequate housing or food. But I do know that it's not my place to tell others how to feel or how to express themselves, especially when the issues are so important and hit so close to home. It's not my place to question their reality or lived experience. I have no business asking others to put their pain in a box, to stop making everything about politics, to express their hurt on my terms when it's convenient for me. It's my job to listen, to keep learning, to elevate their voices, and to do what I can to make it right.