Violence across the globe is heart-wrenching.  It is so tempting to blame this or that group and retreat into comfortable tribal enclaves.  In reflecting on contemporary inter-group conflicts, I am reminded of my visit to a Palestinian home to express condolences after a death. The interactions I had there helped me bridge the distance of differing language and culture and find what Bernard Lonergan would describe as common meaning.

In 2007, I was visiting Israel and Palestine to conduct research on Combatants for Peace.  This remarkable peace movement—nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize—was started by individuals on both sides who had been involved in violence but are now working jointly to build peace.  I was traveling in the West Bank to do interviews with some Palestinian men in the organization.  One day they took me to a small village where the father of one of the founders had passed away, so we could pay our respects.  As we drove up to the house, verses from the Koran were being sung mournfully throughout the neighborhood.

I started to follow my male interpreter into the house but was told, “OK; now we separate.”  The men continued into that house while I was led by a woman to the house across the street.  I followed her with some trepidation.  After leaving my shoes by the door with those of many other female visitors, I entered a parlor with Arabic décor.  Long drapes and curtains covered the walls and cushions lined the floor.  The women inside were fully covered and wearing black.

I was led over to a couch and sat down, feeling quite awkward.  One of the women brought me a cup of coffee.  Within moments I had spilled it.  Several of the women scurried over to mop me up.  They gave me more coffee, along with a plate of dates.  I sat there nervously, sipping my replacement cup of coffee, with my lap still wet from the first.  I tried to be polite and nibbled at the sticky dates while attempting to keep them from adhering to my fingers.  My clothes were wrinkled and I was sweaty from doing research interviews in the hot Middle East terrain.  I was pretty sure that my feet smelled.

Fortunately, a few things helped break the ice.  First, the woman next to me had a small boy, about a year old, who was very active.  I was able to play with him, and through that, to connect with the mother.  Then I had an idea to bring out a photo of my family.  I knew the words for ‘mother’ and ‘father’ in Arabic, which gave me a bit of confidence.  Everyone crowded around me with excitement. A couple of the women brought out their own family pictures to show me.

Then the poor widow came into the room.  She sat next to me, weeping inconsolably with grief.  I felt so sorry for her and tried to comfort her by rubbing her back and holding her hand.  Her sorrow brought tears to my eyes.  I could not help but think about how often Palestinian families gather in sorrow to bury their dead after violence, as life in the outside world carries on around them.

After some time, a boy was sent to fetch me.  Initial awkwardness forgotten, we all parted warmly.  As I slowly made my way around the room, a line of fifteen women kissed me farewell on both cheeks, an Arab custom.  And so, despite cultural differences and a language barrier, we were able to connect through common realms of human meaning: the joy of a young child, the love of families, and the sorrow of loss.

What does Lonergan have to say about common meaning?

Lonergan emphasizes that communities are constituted by common meaning.  The potential for common meaning arises through common experiences. As these experiences become common understanding, formal common meaning is reached.  The actualization of common meaning comes through common judgments.

When we encounter people whose backgrounds are different from our own, it is easy to believe that we have nothing in common.  But sometimes, when we reach across that divide to share our experiences, we find that we have much in common after all.

One of the things I was struck by in my conversations with Combatants for Peace members was that when they first began to meet with one another, any discussion on political topics caused them to retreat into divisive beliefs.  But when they discussed their experiences, they found much to share.  This reinforces Lonergan’s emphasis on experience as foundational to community.  The experiential level evokes rich human feelings that transcend culture and enclave.  Perhaps the pre-political experiential realm is a starting point from which to bridge contemporary political animosity.

The current violence in the world has deep complexities that must be addressed by people from all walks of life including policymakers, scientists, educators and peacemakers.  But at the heart of it all are human beings with common experiences of joy and sorrow, hope and wonder.  Perhaps if we could focus on our shared humanity, we would begin to find a way forward and bring healing to our world through building communities of common meaning.

The views expressed in this essay belong entirely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Lonergan Institute staff or the values of Boston College.