Getting to the Heart of the Matter – Dik Van Iten

Uncle Sol was a kind and generous man, a marvelous story-teller, a guru for all occasions and best of all, a wise and gifted problem-solver. He lived with his daughter, Ruth, and her family just two doors down from us on the southside of Chicago. In those days much of our social life as families living under shared conditions-blue collar, hard-working, coffee cans for savings banks intended to rescue families from the hardships brought on by rainy days, hand-me-downs ending their service by being given to our neighborhood rag collector who kept the best, sold the rest to repair shops for shop cloths. Living in crowded tenant housing makes for complex living. Good neighborliness is usually strong enough to work through quarrels and neglected promises, to return favors. Other, more complicated problems, too. Over time people managed to learn how to differ regarding all kinds of issues without being disagreeable. Uncle Sol was a master at persuading folks to work past their differences and remain clear-headed about what really matters. Whenever a squabble developed between kids or their parents or the people who recently moved in and didn’t remember that their next-door neighbor had the back porch clothes line rights on Thursday mornings. Uncle Sol would arrange late-afternoon front-steps gathering-of-minds. Adults and kids, especially the older ones, would attend. Not everyone, for sure, but most were there. Uncle Sol would ask the folks who were squabbling to “say their piece.” Before they took advantage of the opportunity, he would remind everyone that “…we’re here to listen, learn and understand in the hopes that whatever causes us to differ, we’re all in the same boat.  We might just as well plan on working to get along. So let’s get to the heart of the matter!”  Over time I actually looked forward to those gatherings. It was really interesting to learn what could knock older folks off balance. They weren’t all that different from us kids. The issues and differences that deeply trouble us today are more consequential than those I learned about while growing up in a Chicago tenement… what it means to “be sociable,” to “make allowances,” “to hear one another out,” avoid the temptation to start a conversation by having the last word and never forego an opportunity to make a new friend.  We’ve become a worried people, wary of speaking our minds, stepping on someone else’s toes. Forgotten, so it appears, is the fact that life in a Democracy is as much a spiritual venture as it is a commitment to respect our common humanity as we go about the commerce and trucking of our daily lives. Political ideologies have the effect of closing minds, sealing off doors opening to new insight and enlightenment…as if there were nothing new to learn, nothing more to celebrate. This is not good. Those destined to be our heirs will inherit the results of what we have not done as they will also suffer the consequences of what we have attempted to do. If you pray, pray for them and do so while living your life forward. Done with humility and a good and noble will…this finishing attitude will not go unnoticed…even by those who would live their lives as if they could be lived alone. If you’ve had the good fortune to grow up-as an adult-during the times of Mr. Rodgers-you may recall his talks about “setting a good example.” As a child he was chubby and from time to time, bullied. Over time he learned how to deal positively with this condition. Later on, while our family of three grew up together under the tutelage of Mr. Roberts, we had dinner-time conversations that almost always turned on what adults could learn from Mr. Roberts. Civil rights and the Vietnam War were major topics. But we also took time to talk about what it was that adults could learn from children.  Mr. Rodgers was our family’s Uncle Sol. Perhaps the most enduring lesson we learned from him had to do with being on guard about prejudging other people-upon hearing them express opinions not consonant with our own. The expression, “Everyone has a right to her, to his opinion,” often led to a conversation about the difference between having such a right and being obliged to explain having come to it in the first place. It is far too easy to take on the aire of being sanctimonious about our opinions and beliefs. Close kin to this way of thinking has to do with how we regard exercising our right to freedom of speech. It is commonplace for these freedoms to be unreflectively linked, being free construed as freeing the opinion holder from any obligation to account for the why and wherefore of the opinion in question. Is there a way to avoid closedmind conversations? Why make the effort? It is not surprising to discover that there is great appeal to having our minds made up about this or that issue, proposal, point of view…we cannot just sit around reading and thinking and discussing…there’s work to be done, lives to be lived. Minds made up, however, are very much like beds made up. If you sleep in a bed, you soon learn there is something to be said about keeping it fresh and well looked after. Minds respond well to the same use and care. This is especially true when attempting to take seriously those folks with whom we may have serious difficulty understanding from where they are coming. As adults we share with children a sense of bewilderment, often all sixes and sevens when attempting to make sense of perspectives and beliefs at odds with our own. When Peter, Paul and Mary sang “Home is Where the Heart is” at an enchanting children’s concert they held some years ago, they were on a mission very much in keeping with that of Mr. Rodger’s television love affair with children. Fred Rodgers knew that inside every child there is an adult waiting to be born. He also understood that being a child can be very, very difficult-especially when having to do it all on your own and even more especially when puzzled by what seems to be the difference between being a child and becoming an adult and no one could or would take the time to help you make sense of it all. Adults sometimes forget that they, too, were once a child, but then they sometimes remember bits and pieces about that little person they once were, but they have real difficulty recovering what it felt like to be a child. Being and having-been seem so different. Was there anything good about being a child? Something so good that it would have been a great idea to keep that something-or-other intact, so that you managed to the keep hold of the best of having been a child? And it is really true that there is something of a child in every adult?

Psychologist who study how it is that attitudes develop and change have come to have a very important insight regarding the place often played by attitudes in the dynamic of human-to-human interaction. Recall the proclamation, “I don’t like your attitude!” Its turning-off effect. Attitudes change. Attitudes are changed by other attitudes-most frequently when the demeanor-effect of certain attitudes results in seeing someone “in a new light.” Imagine being in hospital, feeling quite ill. A nurse enters and with calm, cheerful disposition goes about giving you her attention. She treats you with kindness and respect and she exudes a confidence about your progress that brings peace of mind. Her attitude about what she is about somehow touches you-though seriously ill-you see yourself in a different light. You feel better. Not well, but better. Move now to the children’s concert at which Peter, Paul and Mary sang, “Inside.” Imagine how, as a child, you might have responded to the verse,

   “Children are the very best, each one a joy and pride.

Just how we know, I bet you guessed;

We took the time to look inside, inside

Inside, Inside, that’s the most important part

Inside, Inside that’s where you’ll find the heart of the matter!

I recommend for your consideration-when attempting to reach someone whose opinions, beliefs, convictions you find deeply troublesome-