Creating a Safe Place to Disagree in our Small Town

Written By Judith A. Kennedy

There are many reasons to love a small town like Marietta.  There are just as many challenges, as with most things in life.  Those who were born in Marietta have deep memories that go back generations.  Those who are more recently moved here for many of the same reasons those who were born here never left.  Most of us, very likely, value a sense of history, family memories, old trees and quietude, plentiful bird and plant life, a long stretch of path along the river, a slower pace of life, and being “off the beaten track.”  

There aren’t many places to hide in a small town of 2500.  When we choose to step outside, we find ourselves knowing the names and faces of our neighbors, their animals, their children, their illnesses, their losses and tragedies, and their celebrations.  The shared history of the community is documented in photos and in the minds of many. Part of our shared history is that we don’t always get along, but what is unusual about that?

Conflict arises from fear and protectiveness.  Some may fear the destruction of quietude as changes to the town are contemplated and discussed.  Others fear the deterioration of physical structures, historical charm, and the business viability of the town.  Our fears show us what we value. And we probably share more in common than we know. Sometimes anger and fear come from lack of conversation and avoidance of those we feel differ from us.

Effective problem solving requires civility.  It is easy to be civil to those who share our same values.  Not easy at all to listen to those we disagree with. Civility seems easier when there is faith that one’s concerns will be heard.  When we are threatened, it is nearly impossible to have empathy. Empathy is a leap beyond civility. Empathy and responsiveness are difficult when one fears that what one values is under threat. Without civility, however, hostilities not only harm the individual harboring them, but harm the atmosphere of a town.   The big problem is that there may be no real models for us in our personal experiences. We may only know attack/defend, attack/attack, and then we withdraw into separate camps or into isolation.

None of us have a real handle on listening to those who have different views than our own.  Often all we can see and feel is anger and bitterness, but if we are aware that listening allows for the anger to be replaced by a safe place to disagree and for concerns and values to come forth, then we are making headway toward sensing the “shared humanity” of one another. Maybe this is what is meant by “loving one’s enemies.” We may even befriend an unlikely person.  Our family has had this experience of seeing the transformation of conflict into caring kinship.

Marietta is a real testing ground, as are other small towns around the country.  Perhaps only in small towns can we experience this intense experiment in cooperative problem solving.