Searching for common ground

Monday, February 9, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:23 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

I’m always impressed with how fast people lose their affectations the minute the door slams shut behind them as they wait outside a hospital’s emergency room. Like animals caught in a headlight, all their defenses suddenly appear to be stripped away. Behind every facade stands an emotionally naked person, vulnerable to whatever news awaits them beyond that door. Race, sex, age or financial status hardly matter when we are all reduced to a quivering mass of unadulterated fear and anxiety.

If you have been there, done that, then you know what I mean. If you haven’t, you are one of the lucky people. I was there with a friend last week, waiting with her for word about her sick child. As it turned out, he was seriously ill, and there will be days of waiting before the family will know the outcome.

Crises, as we all know, bring out the best in some people and the worst in others. These days, unfortunately, it is sometimes only by accident that some folks learn how other segments of the population live. In other words, it is only when circumstances force them into an emergency room that they have any idea of the quality of care that sick people receive every day of the year.

These kind of people never concern themselves with the overall quality of life for ordinary people. They find it virtually impossible to understand how, when they are living an existence of financial plenty, others could be having difficulty getting food to eat. Others whose family members enjoy good health have no personal knowledge of the way prescription drugs are robbing some people of money needed for other basic necessities.

In days gone by, when not all families had access to cars and mass transit was severely limited, in days when families lived their entire lifetimes within a few blocks of each other, folks tended to know at least one person who was a victim of some social injustice or another. Most people knew at least one family that lost everything in the Great Depression, or family members in a war, or were victimized by polio, or who had a child drown in a well. Nowadays, there are people who have to watch television documentaries to learn about the lifestyles of people who live only a few miles away from them.

I’ve noticed over the last few weeks that it’s only those who are experiencing economic recovery who are bursting to tell us all about it. I have actually spoken with people who find it incredible that everyone is not enjoying their good fortune. They feel that those who are not definitely belong to the loser class, which they perceive as those who failed to take advantage of their opportunities. It’s useless, of course, to explain that not every one had access to those opportunities. These people are completely disinterested in the number who have lost jobs and are no longer counted on the rolls of the unemployed. They would like us all to celebrate with them this joyous economic recovery.

Like all efforts at censorship, I think that period when people were ostracized for being opposed to the war in Iraq and had their anti-war viewpoints called anti-American has had its predictable effect. A lot of folks have simply taken their feelings underground, which is a bad place for feelings to go and grow. I’ve observed also that some who formerly were concerned with the larger society have now narrowed their interests to their own small circles. This is certainly understandable, if not laudable. A lot of folks have come to feel that their thoughts and ideas are neither wanted nor appreciated. Ah, but what about their taxes, one might ask?

One day, probably long after it has ceased to matter, I imagine some new people will realize the true value of neighborhoods and the important role they play in effective governance. Hardly a day goes by that some of my friends who formerly lived in old, close-knit neighborhoods don’t reminisce about the sense of warmth and well being that was so much a part of their existence. We all remember people and recall events that made the old neighborhoods special.

We have lost touch with each other and of greater importance; we don’t seem to have a way of measuring how circumstances affect the lives of people who live differently than ourselves. It’s a fact that so often these days when politicians refer to “the American people,” more and more of us fail to recognize the people they’re talking about.

Maybe before the next presidential election we should all do a crash course on finding out how people other than our own family, friends, income, race and ethnic group and regional neighbors are coping before we vote our choices. Why not read several books written by people with whom we disagree?

Common ground can often be found in the last place we look for it. Sometimes, all it takes is an open mind and a willingness to take the first step.

You can join the conversation with Rose M. Nolen

by calling at 882-5734 or e-mailing her


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