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April 3, 2017

People : The Other Side



When I was thinking about starting this blog, I thought about common threads among the things that make me curious and invested and fulfilled.  I feel strongly that these are the things we need to care for ourselves and other people, in work and life.  What are my questions?  Where do I spend my time looking for answers, and which sources of information feel most substantive?

And I found that so much of this lies in connections to other people and places--to things outside of ourselves.  Especially things that aren't immediately available in our normal day to day.

And so I think that's one of the more subtle reasons why the state of the country these days (and weeks and months) has been unsettling for me, and I imagine for everyone.  Since the election, no matter who you voted for, there's been a sense of disconnect--from the people around us, from people far from us, from our family and friends, from strangers.  It's hard to know how to address that, when we live so much through vague notions of what "other" is.  What do we really know about what other people unlike us face?  How they respond and process?  How they see us?  We've evolved such that our actions impact a sphere much greater than the one we can concretely see.  What we do here in the urban Bay Area might affect what happens in the rural South, and most of us have never been there, and vice versa.

This was one of the driving forces for going door to door to meet people from a different community.  Through KnockEveryDoor, we formed a group to visit Modesto, a city two hours from us.  It's part of Stanislaus County, and the third largest county in California to support Trump.  Our only goal was to ask questions and listen: to hear from voters why they voted the way they did, and what their priorities are for our country.  

In many ways the election felt like a personal attack, so I didn't expect to feel good after speaking to people who voted so differently from me.  Since November, solace has come from groups forming around similarities.  But walking in this community, having so many people open their doors warmly to us and share their honest thoughts on what needs to change, made me feel connected in a way that was new, and necessary.  After the event, someone in the group said she felt "more connected to my fellow Californians."

Lately, so many of our efforts have been focused on opposition.  While I very much value that resistance, it's refreshing to engage in a kind of togetherness, by simple means of talking with each other.  With few expections, judgment or agenda.  Not that there's a complete absence of these things, as any interaction inherently breeds a sense of something to follow, but there's a unique focus on seeing the person in the present.

In our work, I've always felt really lucky to meet people I would never interact with otherwise.  I'm interested in the forces that take us on such different paths.  In medicine, there's an opportunity to connect people from opposite ends of the spectrum.  For people working in community health, the diversity of our patients is often the biggest draw to this profession.

But in Modesto, I realized again that despite that diversity there are huge parts of our state (and country and world) that I don't know.  That diversity means being inclusive of everyone, not just paying attention to the marginalized.  Sometimes annoyingly, California prides itself on often being a model for other states.  It often presents such a strong stance that it's easy to forget how much people might disagree.  It struck us all when one Modesto resident said that "the valley is captive to California."

One resident commented that "we all want the same things."  While I still haven't decided whether this is true for me, I do know that I was struck by how much I empathized with certain emotions people shared.  To hear that people don't feel represented by their representatives, and to connect to that sentiment, albeit in very different ways.  There's a sense of deep division within the state, which I knew rationally but didn't really feel until meeting these people generous enough with their time on a Sunday afternoon to speak to us.  (One person missed the end of some televised sporting event to speak to us; he wasn't particularly happy about it, but he did it).

I'm incredibly grateful for the openness specific to these people who opened their doors, and for the connection that can be created when one person is willing to enter another's neighborhood.

So much changes in just two hours of driving, which gives a small glimpse into how much difference must span the country.  And a few hours on a few streets obviously isn't akin to true understanding.  But I hope that as we keep coming back, we deepen our desire to ask, and develop more trust in our curiosity.  And that as we continue fighting for our values, we aren't deafened by our anger, and remain open to hearing.

On the other side of it: at the same time that I recognize how little exposure we've had to this community, I recognize that it works both ways.  There's much that I'd like to share about my experience, and the experience of people like our patients, with these communities.  But this venture made me understand that sometimes the best way to encourage other people to listen is to listen first.

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