Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

From Common Tables to Common Ground

The search for common ground has become increasingly elusive. Maybe we aim for something simpler, such as a common table.

Tables are where people meet, eat, drink and talk. There are kitchen tables, coffee tables and picnic tables. They all serve a common purpose as a place we associate with related conversation.

There is a time for action, but we live in a time for words. Words spoken to other people with respect and without venom.

People don’t have to agree, but they should be agreeable. Tables can help.

Think of the thousands or even millions of tables where people congregate and talk. They can talk about anything – family, favorite places to visit, fantastic memories. They can share what concerns them and what inspires them. Before long, people talking around tables could start calling themselves friends.

The mere process of listening and talking can be cathartic. Unlike social media like-minded vacuum chambers, sitting around a table is an open-air experience. You can’t hide behind snark or retweet an article you read. You have to listen, talk and deal with feedback in real-time and in-person.

It’s is easy to spout epithets at someone in a protest march or on an online comment forum. It is harder to yell at someone sitting across the table from you where you are sharing a meal, a beer or a cup of joe.

You can pound on a table, and it won’t hit you back. Maybe that’s why we think of tables as safe places for breezy or serious conversation.

People around a table may come from different backgrounds and widely divergent incomes. Yet when they sit at the same table, they are equals. Each person has a voice. You may violently disagree with someone, but at a table, you are more likely to listen than lash out.

We are a nation with far too many organizations, so instead of starting another one, why not encourage an organic movement of people intentionally meeting around tables to listen and talk.

  • Families could do it around what we used to call the family dinner table.
  • Friends could do it around a coffee or bar table.
  • Students could do it around lunch tables at school.
  • Strangers could do it around tables in public parks.
  • City people could dine around tables in the homes of rural people.
  • Sworn enemies could do it around intentional tables almost anywhere.

One could hope that at least a few such conversations would achieve breakthroughs – a new appreciation of a different point of view, an awareness of an overlooked sensitivity, a modification of your own viewpoint.

There even could bigger breakthroughs. People who had ignored or hissed at one another might actually find common ground. Without changing their own opinions, they could see value in collaborating with people of a different mindset to tackle together a shared goal, a goal that went unacknowledged for lack of constructive interaction.

These are heavy burdens to lay on tables, but sturdy tables exist. They can stand up to platters of potato salad, pitchers of beer and high expectations.

Tables, after all, are held in high esteem. A cook wrote a love letter to tables, calling them the heart and breathing center of life and health. A philosopher said wisdom can be lacking in the halls of parliament or academe, but not around kitchen tables. A writer credited tables as the one place where the hunter and the hunted could sit, like old friends, together.

Mythology aside, finding a common table could be our best hope to reaching common ground. The sooner we start sitting around, the better.



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