Man standing atop a moutain before the rising sun.

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Answering from expansiveness

April 11, 2023

Sarah Wildman and her family are navigating the unimaginable. In a raw, heartbreaking article in The New York Times, she shares what it’s like to be in “the impossible place” with her 14-year-old daughter, Orli, who suffers from liver cancer. 

From diagnosis to chemotherapy to organ transplants, metastases, radiation, and weeks of hospitalizations, Sarah and Orli have faced overwhelming and seemingly insurmountable challenges. Sarah’s first impulse? “Not to face anything at all,” she says. She longs to retreat, to run to the edges of life, rather than confront the messy reality at the center of their family. 

But Sarah hasn’t pulled back. She made a different choice. With unlimited uncertainty and no easy answers, she has stepped forward. She is choosing to do the best she can in a harrowing situation. 

As a nation, we confront overwhelming, often seemingly intractable, challenges. We, too, face a hard choice. To move forward, we should heed Sarah’s example. 

Our public square is being hijacked by those who want to tear us down and tear us apart. They manufacture and stoke conflict, mistrust, and fear. They mire us in endless contentious debates. Just last month, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene added yet more fuel to the fire. She tweeted a call for a “national divorce,” intending to split the country along partisan lines. “We are done,” she said—evidently referring to any attempt to work with people with different views. 

In the midst of this tumult, what we’ve found in our nationwide report, Civic Virus, is that people are in the grips of a fight-or-flight response. Some are retreating from civic life entirely; others are separating into smaller and smaller groups and seeking to win at any cost for their cause. Meanwhile, people and organizations of goodwill have moved to the edges of public life. There, they gain a greater sense of safety from the political turmoil, can narrow their agendas, and do their work with less exposure and risk. 

The result is that our public square is increasingly left naked to the noisiest, most divisive, and incendiary voices. We cannot stand for this. We must push back. Now.

All of us know from our own personal lives what it’s like to be in the grip of a fight or flight response. While our own situations may not be as extreme as Sarah’s, we flee when confronted with the challenges of being human. We take cover. Sadly, we are doing this in our civic lives, too. Our public square is closing down just when we need to open it up. 

Amid the noise and confusion and fear within our public life, we may want to take cover. We may seek out protection. But this narrow place only walls us off from each other just when we need each other. It causes us to narrow our response just when we must broaden it. 

In Judaism, my faith, there is something called the meitzer, the biblical narrow place, a place of compression. In this place, we can lose sight of the big picture; life can seem impossibly hard; every path can seem like a deadend. This is where we are today: in a compressed place, with a narrowed view, and a limited sense of possibility and hope.

But we can take a different path. There is a different way forward. 

I was in Alamance County, North Carolina, recently. It is a community deeply divided over race. In Alamance, as in many places in our nation, the racial divide is marked by a history of pain, profound misunderstanding, even violence. But in our Lab for public innovators—community members who want to step forward and turn outward toward the larger community—when the topic of race came up, the people in the room made a powerful choice. Instead of retreating and giving in to the narrow place, they stepped forward and opened themselves up. Like Sarah, they had the courage and humility and vulnerability to reach out to find one another and then to commit to working together in the face of enormous challenges. 

Psalm 118 tells us: “From the narrow place I called to God. I was answered from expansiveness.” It is our turn. Let us answer from expansiveness. 

It is only human that amid the noise and confusion and fear within our public life, we may want to take cover. We may seek out protection. But this narrow place only walls us off from each other just when we need each other. It causes us to narrow our response just when we must broaden it. 

It’s time for us to come back into the public square and reclaim it. As Sarah said, “Even though I am in a place defined by unknowing, I have not abandoned hope.”

We must not, either. When compressed from all sides, we must break open and step forward. We must build a new trajectory of hope. Together, we can.

Richard C. Harwood is president and founder of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a nonpartisan, non-profit organization located in Bethesda, Maryland. He is the author of the bestselling book, Stepping Forward: A Positive, Practical Path to Transform Our Communities and Our Lives.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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