At times, it seems like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates too quickly into dehumanization. Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions. . . . At our best, we practice empathy, imagining ourselves in the lives and circumstances of others. This is the bridge across our nation's deepest divisions. And it is not merely a matter of tolerance, but of learning from the struggles and stories of our fellow citizens and finding our better selves in the process.

President George W. Bush
At the memorial for slain police officers in Dallas
July 12, 2016



Who is not devastated by the events of the past month? Regardless of who you are or where you stand culturally or politically, you weep with the friends and loved ones of those who have died. And . . .

What can we do?

You hear this question from all points of the compass, at all levels of privilege and power. You hear individuals and whole communities ask that question or offer an answer. 

What will we do?

In today’s complex context, there is only one right answer to this question:  We will make tradeoffs. At each moment and in each situation, we will find a balancing point between:

Our political parties, media outlets, heads of government, and powerful bureaucrats will negotiate these tensions, or they will lead us down more blind alleys and into more dead ends. They will either find dynamic and sustainable solutions that work for all, or they will leave us in the lurch when they refuse to give up their sacred cows. Tax policy will protect the wealthy and bankrupt public services. Union and management leaders will paint each other as selfish and short-sighted. White liberals will think they speak for others. Politicians will ignore the Bill of Rights, and the gun lobby will explain away rising death tolls. Movements will pledge to “fight to the death” or to “give up all hope.”

These dichotomies are not the problem. They are the lifeblood of a healthy society. Getting stuck in them is the problem. Complex systems depend on underlying tensions to feed change and sustainability. Without the potential energy embedded in such powerful differences, any complex system will run down and die.  Locking in on one or another of these critical questions may work for some time, but it will not sustain over the long term. Consider the community of Shakers[1], nineteenth century utopias[2], Hitler’s Germany[3], the latter days of the Roman Empire[4], and the community in the Lord of the Flies[5]. In each of these situations, people held on and resisted one or more of the underlying tensions of humanity. They thrived, and then they collapsed.

We can learn from their failures. Today’s challenges will not be solved by locking in and defending one end of the difficult dichotomies we face, regardless of which one we choose.

The challenge is to hold onto the dynamic tensions in a perpetual balancing act, negotiating tradeoffs that are most fit for function. The goal is to connect across the differences, so that the power and possibilities are realized. Just like a car battery holds potential for power, it will do nothing useful until the poles are connected, and the stored energy can be released to do real work. When we find ways to connect across our differences, we can create possibilities for change at all levels of human existence.

As individuals, when we acknowledge our own biases, we begin to engage with others in more authentic and welcoming ways.

As a community, when we engage in thoughtful and honest conversations about poverty and violence, we can begin to find new solutions that make the most of local assets and respond to local needs.

As a nation, when we begin to work across silos to address the systemic sources of health inequities, we can create new opportunities and institutions that serve the needs across many chasms. 

As a human race, we will find many ways forward when we support the rights for everyone to believe as they will, and still find truths that move us forward together.

In today’s world, the differences are given, and they are necessary. The problem is that our current exchanges are insufficient at best and destructive, at worst. If we are to avoid tearing ourselves apart, we will find exchanges that bind us together—in spite of our differences. In personal choices, in family relationships, in communities, organizations, and political circles, we can follow the simple rules of the Craig Reyold’s BOIDs[6] and strive to:

  • Find alignment: Decide which tensions are most important and find the balance that is fit for function here and now. “At this moment, is freedom more important than safety?” or, “In this circumstance, is reasoned argument or passionate advocacy the better approach?” In conversation with someone I disagree with, how do I move forward in inquiry, without getting stuck in silence or anger?
  • Move toward cohesion: Find the ties that bind diverse groups together. “What is the underlying concern that we share?” or “What will bring us together for a particular purpose in a particular time, without diluting our ability to choose something different tomorrow?” In conversations among diverse communities, how do we find a shared passion, like the health and safety of our youth?
  • Respect separation: Know where reasonable boundaries exist, and don’t demand that they dissolve. Maintain identity and autonomy whenever possible, to protect the power for independent choice and action. “Who are we?  What is important to us?  How do we connect within our own group and with other groups beyond?” How can I share my story without negating the stories of others?  

These rules are simple, but they are not easy. They require discipline, curiosity, and courage. Whether the goal is to navigate a personal conflict, an institutional transformation, or a community reclamation, these rules can lead to the dialogues that lead to tradeoffs that lead us to answer the question: What will we do?  The balance point, the tradeoffs, the answers will be different every single time, because our world is unstable and uncertain. The questions, however, will remain useful over many different times and circumstances. They can build a bridge to a future we cannot imagine, but we can hope for. I hope.

Glenda Eoyang





[5] Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. New York: Coward-McCann, 1962. Print.


Join a global network of learning about HSD!

As a member of the network, you will receive weekly notices of events, opportunities, and links to blogs and other learning opportunities. Additionally, you will have the option to unsubscribe at any point, should you decide to do so.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.