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Guest Column: We are not enemies, but stewards

Conflict over ideas in the rough-and-tumble world of politics is age-old and quite necessary in a democracy. In fact, conflict produces a special energy which can be viewed as a precious resource. When harnessed and channeled in positive ways, it can fuel effective responses to the challenges we face.

On the other hand, when conflict fuels bitter divisiveness and partisan gridlock, as it has in America over recent decades, it's a problem. Political differences have turned toxic, resulting in our failure to effectively address the challenges of our time. This failure on our part damages the civilization we have inherited and intend to pass on.

At a deeper level, bitter divisiveness damages the human "heart." I believe these two precious assets -- our civilization and our individual hearts -- are in great need of stewardship.

Many of us take American civilization for granted. In fact it has proven to be an endurable system of government thanks to the stewardship of those who have preceded us for over two centuries. We may think our country will just keep on ticking, no matter how we act as stewards, but history proves otherwise: The fate of a nation is largely determined by its response to challenges. As the historian Arnold Toynbee said, "Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder." It is only through skillful stewardship that they last (longer). And while we may think that our elected officials are the delegated stewards of our government, in a democracy every citizen is a steward, whether we are awake to that reality or not.

The writer Parker Palmer defines heart as "the core of the self, that center place where all of our ways of knowing converge -- intellectual, emotional, sensory, intuitive, imaginative, experiential, relational." This core of the self has the potential for a wide range of behavior. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, uses the metaphor of a seed garden in describing how qualities like joy, peace and love lie alongside others like fear, anger and hate. The seeds we water are those that will grow. We all know which seeds get watered when our political differences turn toxic.

It's easy to feel frustrated, discouraged and helpless over the state of our country these days. But we are not helpless. One thing we can do is to embrace the stewardship I am suggesting. By stewardship, I mean not a formula of what to do, but an intention for how to be, an intention that shapes our responses. This is what that might look like:

Having an open mind: Listening to the other side with curiosity and a desire to understand; holding a point of view with a degree of humility; seeing the world as hugely complicated; accepting that each of us can only hold a fraction of what is knowable, and thus loosening our grip on what we see as "truth".

Realizing respect for others: Actually treating others with love, respect and compassion in ways that line up with the teachings of our various religious paths; reminding ourselves that we have much in common with those who hold different views.

Abraham Lincoln gave us a good example of a steward responding to deeply held differences among citizens. "We are not enemies, but friends", he reminded Americans during a time when our republic was in peril. And he then appealed to "the better angels of our nature" as a way of pointing citizens to the "bonds of our affection."

With just a few weeks left in our election season, when the tugs and pulls of political differences are probably having their greatest effect on most of us, maybe it's time to set some long-term intentions around what kind of stewards we want to be.

In this we have a choice. On the one hand, we can decide to accept the status quo of this era in American politics. That would mean continuing our blind allegiance to either the "red" team or the "blue" team. It would mean closing our minds to opposing ways of approaching our challenges. It would mean making a choice, conscious or not, to water seeds of anger and fear.

Or we can make a much different choice. If we consider ourselves to have an open mind, if we say we believe in the core teachings of our religion, we could actually walk that talk. A start would be to simply notice how Americans, ourselves included, speak and listen when differing ideas collide.

The poet Rilke encouraged us to "live the questions." I suggest these two: Which "heart seeds" are being watered? How does a vigilant steward of a civilization speak and listen?

We have a choice.