#3 Is there common ground both sides might hold to be precious…or not?

Note:  As detailed elsewhere, children’s art invokes for me the curiosity, wonder, and “beginner’s mind” that makes for an especially productive conversation. “As children we fall in love with the wonder of being alive,” Tsoknyi Rinpoche taught, with “the things around us fascinat[ing] us” – inviting people to make space for mindful practices (including mindful listening) that move us towards, “falling back in love with the sheer wonder of being alive.”

“[Improved discourse entails] an enormous range of possibilities for the advancement of meaningfully democratic practices and policies” which may be achieved “simply for the price of improving our capacities and enlarging our opportunities for collaborative inquiry about common problems” – Alison Kadlec and William Friedman, Deliberative democracy and the problem of power[1]

 In a conversation so sensitive, so charged and so personal as this one, disagreement can rule and reign from sun up to sun down – with little, if any, room for anything else.

One of the most profound gifts dialogue has given me is a glimpse of something more – something beyond, and above, and below the disagreement…something solid where we can (all potentially) stand.

Whether or not there is such a thing as “common ground” in this conversation, of course, is one of the points very much in dispute. 

At different points, one side or the other will pitch a potential topic of agreement. The question is deceptively non-simple, however, since many of the hoped for answers – “love” and “acceptance” and “tolerance” and “well-being of children” – it turns out invoke deeply disparate moral, spiritual and psychological narratives – e.g., What does it mean to be accepting? What kind of experience do children most need?  

If we can’t agree on that (and believe me, we can’t) – then what can we agree on?  If there is such a thing as legitimate common ground, what would it look like?  That has been a question we’ve grappled with in our Living Room Conversations – and it’s one I’d pose more broadly today.  

To start, click here to check out our short-list of agreements we’ve been gathering and “collecting” agreements at Living Room Conversations – identifying anything that comes up in conversation as something people on both sides (might) assent to and find some harmony. 

For each area we’ve identified, there are plenty of people who would probably balk at them – even with our qualifications. What do you think?  Are you agreement-with-these-agreements?  Would you suggest additions or changes?  

Not all agreements are equally powerful, in my mind.  That became especially clear during a meeting with Kendall Wilcox several months ago – openly gay Mormon man and a committed dialogue practitioner.  The backdrop of our exchange was a shared sense at how easy it is for both LGBT/SSA individuals (and their family/friends) to sometimes assume a profound level of inner deficiency:

  • “Just the fact that I had these feelings made me feel dirty” (FB-ME)
  • “I felt damned, and I felt dirty” (FB-L)
  • “I truly believed that I was evil; I was corrupt; I was sick in some way. And, so soon after that I became very depressed…it [was] hard to even live (​VH-SMT)​
  • “I thought that God hated me as much as I hated myself and therefore suicide became a real option for a very, very long time. Um, and it was a very difficult time” (FB-H)
  • “I felt like my world was ending. I thought I was never going to have salvation. I thought that even just feeling that way meant I was less a person, less of a daughter in God’s kingdom” (FB-ER)

 One man described how his own self-loathing began to take over his life:

I felt like I had done something wrong to feel those attractions and that it was my fault – that I had committed some sin that had brought about this consequence and now I was attracted to men. I felt therefore like I was dirty, dark, and evil. That feeling of darkness was too much to bear. That resulted in the darkest time in my life where I felt completely unworthy of any love or support of any kind. I felt completely cut off from my Heavenly Father, and that was probably the most difficult thing – I didn’t even feel worthy to pray….I knew He would hear me, but I felt like even God was ashamed to hear from me because of what I was experiencing. I felt like maybe I was being punished with these attractions, and so why would God want to hear about it when I brought it on myself. I was so desperate and I was so alone… Finally I just felt like instead of the eventuality or the possibility of somebody finding out somehow, in a weak moment telling them, or whatever – I would profit my friends and my family much more if I were just a memory rather than an actual presence in their lives. (VH-SB) 

If self-loathing were the end of it, that would be troubling enough and hard enough to grapple with.  But it doesn’t stop there:

  • “I was ostracized, slammed into walls, bashed over the head with trash cans, beaten, and taunted with homophobic slurs…’faggot’…was the word I heard most often. I only knew that people thought I was weird and hated me for it” (VH-AH)
  • “I ended up transferring schools because everyone was making fun of me. I couldn’t walk down the halls without people calling me obscene names. It hurt, it really hurt; some people would run up to me and say, ‘Is it true? Is it true, are you really gay?’ I would just bury my face and run on and just try to ignore it all” (VH-RC)
  • “A lot of derogatory things were said and I was always called a fairy and all the different words that people can use that can be hurtful” (VH-JT)
  • “I was teased by the boys a lot for the way I looked. They had a nickname for me; they called me ‘shim,’ a mix of she and him. It really hurt. I’d be standing in line at lunch and I would hear people whispering, ‘Is that a boy or a girl?’” (VH-KK)

Many more stories like this could be shared – accounts which invoke a horror from people of all perspectives. For me, at least, these point to one undeniable, rock-solid area of potential common ground – something that goes deeper than simply standing up against bullying and violence.

Laying aside the different interpretations and narratives we have about identity, sexuality, morality, marriage, God – and virtually everything – perhaps we can agree that underneath all the stories, labels and disagreements is something we can agree upon:

A person.  Of worth.  And fundamental, inner, priceless value.

Fundamental wholeness. Out of the shared recognition of self-loathing and bullying as harmful and dangerous, perhaps people on both sides can arrive at this point of potential unity:  namely, seeing oneself as beautiful deep down – on the most fundamental level.

It is during my own moments of intimate listening, hearing and dialogue where this has surfaced in undeniable ways.  As the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas once said, “Truth comes through the face of the Other.”

And that day with Kendall, in particular, as we touched on the idea of fundamental wholeness, a spiritual rush of sweetness came over us: “hey – this is something to pay attention to!”

What to call that inner core[2] and how to make sense of the many things we layer on top of it…we’re back into Divergence land.  But resting for a moment on that deepest level of self – what mindfulness practitioners would call “awareness” and Christians, “spirit” – to what degree might we agree to relish, preserve and honor our profound, inherent beauty?

At that deepest level many people can find common acknowledgment of the fundamental worth, value and even perhaps wholeness our deepest selves.  Although not everyone might call this fundamental core “good”[3] – that’s even something that many might agree upon.  One person said, “And that was profound for me, and made me realize that regardless of who I was or my sexual orientation or my relationship with God, I was still something really great. And that was beautiful to me” (FB-RU).

The impact of this simple realization is reflected in this man’s story of progressing from the darkness of self-loathing to something else:

“I’ve had moments where I thought death was the only way out. Where I thought I would be better off dead. That I wasn’t worth it. Where I was so scared to move forward because I didn’t know what the future held for me. But something within me kept saying, Spencer, hold on. There’s healing. There’s purpose. There’s joy. And it didn’t come at once. It’s come in spurts. But it has gradually become more and more and more evident as I’ve done this journey, as Mary and I have gone on this journey together. it is worth it. That you’re worth it. That no matter how hard it gets at times. No matter how much you want to give up and throw in the towel or whatever, to not give up. That you are worth it and that there is hope, there is healing. … God doesn’t hate you. That God is aware of you, more than you even know. That he understands you to the depth of your core” (​VH-SMT)​.

The woman who spoke of feeling “like my world was ending” and that “even just feeling that way meant I was less a person, less of a daughter in God’s kingdom” added, “that’s not the truth at all. No matter how you feel you deserve to be loved” (FB-ER).  

In recounting interactions with others around him, Catholic writer Thomas Merton described his own similar realization this way:

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are.  If only we could see each other that way all the time.  But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

Mormons might describe it saying, “we are all children of God.”  Jews might say “we all have the divine spark.”  Jon Kabat-Zinn, a mindfulness-teacher, talks about “inner wholeness” and “our own powerful inner resources for insight, transformation, and healing.”

As you read some other accounts, ask yourself:  is this something both sides might agree on solidly:  the profound value and fundamental wholeness of our deepest selves?[4]

One person spoke of “learning to love myself as I was right then. Not, one day I’ll be happy when I don’t have this, or when I do have this. Being able to say, right now with my struggles the way they are – I’m okay; I’m not the scum of the Earth.”  He added, “For me, that was probably the hardest thing to accept – that I wasn’t this vile person…I was still part of the plan. I was still part of Heavenly Father’s grand scheme” (VH-JO).

For many, this insight comes from an encounter with the divine – in a way that changed their view of this Being:

  • “As I delved into the scriptures more and studied more I got a different view of God than I had previously. I came to understand that He loves all His children which seems obvious, but that included me, and that He was very much aware of what was going on. You know God isn’t sitting there freaking out saying, ‘Oh my goodness, I have a same-sex attracted son, what is going to happen!?’ That helped me”(VH-JAJ)
  • “The pamphlet God Loveth His Childrenand talks by Dallin H. Oaks and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland – those changed my life. For the first time in my life I knew that it was okay that I was attracted to men. I found out that God still loved me and that there wasn’t anything wrong with me per se. That’s how it is and it was fine. God knew it and the Church leaders knew it” (VH-LJ)
  • “Even in the darkest times when I felt so cut off from my Heavenly Father, I never lost this intrinsic, innate knowledge that He was there, and that I was His son.” (VH-SB)
  • “God loves you. God loves you period. It’s not that He loves you despite anything or He will love you in the future – He loves you now”(VH-GB)

Compared to the more despairing, dark view, the discovery of another way to think is experienced as profoundly liberating.  One person describes his excitement that other LGBT/SSA individuals “were having the same spiritual validation that I was, and that we were still… we weren’t inherently evil, as it sometimes felt… I was able to escape that” (FB-AD)

Even with uncertainty, some talk of being able to rest in the confidence of that assurance – “I have no idea what the future holds, but I know that it will be amazing. The Lord has a plan for me and as I trust Him I will receive blessings beyond measure and I am so grateful for that” (VH-LJ)

What follows from this fundamental wholeness, of course, is a contested point: If our fundamental core is good, does this also mean that anything we experience is likewise good? (or not) Should same-sex attraction also be embraced as fundamentally good? (or not)

Regardless of these other disagreements, I would highlight this as powerful point of potential common ground. As Kendall Wilcox writes, “We assert that all our sisters, brothers, and families are inherently worthy of love and belonging in our homes, congregations, and communities – no matter where their life path may take them. This assertion means that we affirm the wholeness or innate divinity in every individual. We recognize the genuine, inherent worth of each soul as a child of God (without any insinuations about what that means in terms of life choices each child of God might make).”

Like all other common ground possibilities, this one has its limits. Certainly those religious conservatives who believe in the depravity of man would find this viewpoint far too liberal – while those who disbelieve God would contest any of its divine reflections.  But for those with some conception of an inner core – and one that is profoundly good – this may really be something to rest upon together.

In the discussion above, I’ve illustrated the larger case for fundamental wholeness.  Would you like to know a short-cut to discovering this for yourself?

Invite someone on the other side of this conversation to sit with you.  The magic moment for me happened in the home of Tyler & Michael Mathie – a gay couple who courageously hosted one of our first Living Room Conversations.

None of us were sure what would come out of the conversation, and I was personally surprised what it ended up meaning for me.  Simply put, I couldn’t believe how much I came away just really liking both of them. They were amazingly easy to love and to enjoy – people I wanted to spend more time with.  Following the conversation, they welcomed me back into their home multiple times – and became instrumental in Village Square’s first inaugural event.

I imagine that they – like my friend Tracy Hollister – might be nonplussed at why this affection hasn’t translated into seeing things the way they do (like some research seems to suggest it does for others). It hasn’t – and it may never happen. But that, again, is where the paradox offers to teach something to us all.

After all, if we loved only those who agreed with us, so what?  What would it mean to fall in love with those who disagree most vociferously with us?

Experiencing just that has changed so much for me!


[1] Kadlec, A., & Friedman, W. (2007). Deliberative democracy and the problem of power. Journal of Public Deliberation, 3(1) A8. [http://services.bepress.com/jpd/vol3/iss1/art8]. (p. 23).

[2] In addition to Christian and Buddhist portrayals describe above, there are clearly many more ways to ‘narrate’ this inner core – including from people who are non-theist.

[3] Some Christians would certainly take issue with this – especially those who believe in the fundamental depravity of man.  For Mormons who believe in the fundamental divinity of man (albeit living in a fallen world), they would be comfortable seeing inner goodness and beauty all around.

[4] This, of course, is not the same thing as saying “everything about a person reflects wholeness” or “everything that person believes or says or says is beautiful” or “everyone that someone does should be embraced as whole and valuable.”


You Might Also Like


  • Reply Casherie November 10, 2015 at 1:22 am

    I love this! My friend and I talked about this exact concept that both sides are trying to show respect and reverence for the individual but just in different ways that seem conflicting. In conflict, many times both sides have the same intention and I believe that the intention of the church was not harmful, and the backlash against it is from a place of wanting people to be included and respected which is also a good intention. I like the idea of finding the common ground.

    • Reply jzhess@gmail.com December 2, 2015 at 2:28 am

      Thanks, Casherie! Recognizing good intentions on both sides is huge…probably because the tendency is the opposite – impugning the other as “clearly” motivated by [fill in the blank] – anger, fear, etc.

    Leave a Reply