When Gabor Lukacs and I gave each other big hugs after the public meeting ended, the 20 people in the room may have been surprised. After all, we had just expressed opposite opinions on a controversial subject.
As a member of a commission considering reforms to our town’s government, I favor a major change, while Gabor supports minor tweaks. We also disagree on our town’s biggest issue this month: whether to accept $34 million in state money to build two new elementary schools.
But Gabor and I are friends. We both ride bicycles and grow vegetables, and we are among our town’s lowest carbon emitters. I have written blog posts about his urban homestead and why he lives the simple life.
When Gabor and I embraced each other after the meeting, I hadn’t seen him since we started an email dialogue three weeks earlier. It has now grown to 23 lengthy emails, and we joke that it will come out in book form next year.
We haven’t held back. I’ve been completely open about the problems I see with our town’s governmental system, and he’s told me what he’s afraid of if we change it. Both of us have thought carefully about what the other has written, and I feel he has broadened my perspective.
We need more civil conversation about the challenges we face, both local and national. Too often, we communicate only with people we agree with. We tend to emphasize our differences with political opponents rather than seeking common ground. This narrow thinking can lead to a belief that our problems are simple when they are actually complex.
Gabor and I compliment each other. “I really appreciate that you did your homework and considered both sides of the argument,” I wrote to him. “I want to appreciate you for putting all this energy into trying to make our town government better,” he wrote to me.
There is give and take between us, as in “I give that to you if you’ll also agree…” We have found numerous points on which we see things the same way.
I also appreciate that Gabor, whose first language was not English, is unafraid of verbal jousting with someone who made his living with words. I understand that because Gabor grew up in Hungary during Soviet domination, he has good reason to feel a fierce love of participating in our 240-member Town Meeting.
His wish to be directly involved in the decision-making process has led me to think about ways this could continue within a new government structure. I wouldn’t want to lose his voice, even when I disagree with his positions. And Gabor has agreed with me that Town Meeting would work better if it was much smaller.
We’ve confronted fundamental questions. What does democracy mean? How can you build trust in government? How can elected officials listen to dissenters in a way that makes them feel heard?
As we prepare to inaugurate a new President who casually puts down those who disagree with him, we need more of the kind of respectful dialogue that Gabor and I have maintained.
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