Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Third Space

Going to change direction for a little while with this blog. I'm going to start a "cross-blog dialogue" with my friend and sometimes-collaborator Jacob Hess, discussing primarily how Mormons (like Jacob) and former Mormons (like me) can have productive conversations and fulfilling friendships in spite of religious divisions. Jacob and I both have experienced--acutely and painfully--this divide in our own lives, and we've both made big mistakes in trying to bridge it. Fortunately, we think we may have learned a thing or two in the process. Through this project, we're hopeful we might sneak up on a practical framework that others could utilize as they try to navigate these choppy waters in their own lives. We envision a "big tent" where family and friends can put aside religious differences and focus on the people and relationships beneath them, experiencing deep connection, understanding, and unconditional acceptance. We're calling this tent "The Third Space." 

We don't see Third Space like a Venn diagram, where we have "my world view" over here, and "your world view" over there, and their overlap is where we meet to discuss, leaving the outlying parts alone. While that's a framework that has some practical merit, discussing areas of overlapping interests is not exactly what we're describing. 

We envision Third Space more like a family cabin. Not my home. Not your home. It's a separate but complete living space where we each have a stake in joint ownership. We have to pack our own bags, but only with what's most essential. We have to vacate the comforts of our own home, where everything is just the way we like it, and travel some rocky roads. And then we have to sit together on that tattered old couch, look into the face of a person we once thought we knew so well, and figure out if and how we're going to respect, understand, and love each other in this new space. 

Third Space isn't going to work for everybody. In fact, it's probably not possible or even desirable for many people or circumstances. Sometimes, relationships are frayed enough, histories so complex, vulnerabilities so pronounced, that everybody is better off staying at home for a while, or even forever. That's okay. But for those of us who want something more, who want to feel that closeness and acceptance we once felt from our family and friends, we think a weekend in the Third Space cabin might do us a world of good.

Jacob and I have been talking about this stuff for several years now, but our acquaintance precedes that by a decade. We first met at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah many years ago. I was teacher there: a BYU student and former LDS missionary recently returned from Brazil. I taught Portuguese, gospel doctrine, and missionary skills to Jacob's class of new Mormon Elders headed to Brazil. We fell out of contact after that, then reconnected by chance at a conference in North Carolina on alternative mental health care over a decade later. A lot had changed in that timeframe. I was now a practicing family physician; Jacob had attained a PhD in community psychology. Due to the nature of the conference, we found areas of instant rapport. In the years since, we've worked on several projects and papers together in the mental health arena.

But perhaps the biggest thing that had changed was that I was no longer Mormon. When this came up in our first conversation, I was struck that Jacob, unlike virtually every other Mormon I had known up to that point, wanted to dive deeper. This came instinctively to him. He wanted to understand my reasons. He expressed empathy and support, without compromising his own convictions. This was highly unusual--and welcome--stuff.

This had led since to numerous discussions via email and phone on the subject of faith and family across the Mormon/post-Mormon divide, often very intense and occasionally bordering on confrontational. But even when the ride has gotten rough, we've "stayed in the saddle." We seem to have developed a level of trust that allows us to know that the other person is genuine in their motives and intent, and keeps the other's best interest in mind, even when that conflicts directly with what seems like crucial parts of our own worldview. In other words, Jacob can think I'm totally wrong about really important stuff, and yet I'm confident he still respects me. And vice versa.

Due to this friendship and shared experience, as well our individual training and natural interest in exploring boundaries and seeking harmony, we've happened upon some things that might be useful to others. We learned how emotions, logic and language can both connect and divide. We know personally many--dozens, hundreds, way TOO many--people who are currently suffering from fractured relationships across this divide. There is a need for better tools, a better framework, in how to handle it, because it's not going away, and life is short. That we can all agree on.  

So we're going to give Third Space a try. And rather than just tell you about it, we're going to try to demonstrate, by engaging in substantive, earnest, challenging dialogue about this highly polarized subject.

It's an experiment. So, Jacob, let it begin, my friend.

(Here's a link to Jacob's blog. Please read it, too!) 

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