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Thursday, August 23, 2012

Why Can't We All Just Get Along

*Published in the Sun-Times Beacon News on August 26th, 2012

One lesson I’ve learned in nearly four decades of being alive is that it’s never actually about the neighbor’s dog pooping in your yard. By that, I mean, there is always something deeper and more complex at play than what is visible on the surface.

I recently read a story by one of our local columnists about the growing number of neighborhood disputes and it started me on a thought process about confrontation and basic civility towards one another. Something may start out as simple as dog poop or overgrown branches crossing a property line but when a problem is not confronted immediately and respectfully, it grows and festers into something far bigger.

Eventually, we get to a place so clouded in anger and resentment because we have handled the problem poorly or the subject of our complaint didn’t respond appropriately that we can no longer even recall what we were angry about in the first place.

The same holds true in a domestic dispute. When we respond for an argument between partners, it is usually because something happened that has elevated so much so that the police need to respond. As a patrol officer on the street, I remember standing in the homes of couples and trying to sift through the incident as told by each person involved. I learned very quickly how humans have a gift for telling their story in the way that makes them look most favorable. We all do it. I also learned that a police officer cannot come into your home and solve a problem in 15 minutes that took 15 years to create. A call to 9-1-1 tells me that in most cases, the problem is far deeper than the action that resulted in the call.

When we refuse to confront the issues in our lives that cause us stress, we run the risk of the problem growing into something insurmountable. The problem lies in the confrontation. The word itself has a negative connotation and it conjures of images of finger-pointing and posturing. And yet confronting something respectfully and from a place of caring is actually the stuff that propels us to a higher level.

The people I surround myself with in life (I call them my personal Board of Directors) have earned their place because they never allow me to manipulate myself or the truth so it is favorable to me. In my personal life and my work life, I have benefited the most from those who have pointed out my weaknesses and provided suggestions for improvement. If it comes from a place of genuine concern, criticism is the best gift someone can give us because it forces us to change if we want to be better.

What if we applied that same concept to everyone with whom we cross paths? If your neighbor has his stereo blasting and it’s shaking the china in your cabinet, why not walk over and knock on the door and politely explain your plight?

I realize I just made that sound ridiculously easy when the reality is that it is far from easy. Confrontation is a terribly complicated process because we have to be concerned about how we are delivering the message just as much as how the message is being received. We all have different communication styles and we run the risk of the message being distorted based on our own interpretation. And there are some people who absolutely shut down and become defensive in the face of criticism. You won’t get very far with the likes of them.

But what if we tried it anyway? Humans inherently take the path of least resistance and it’s far easier to air your complaints to everyone else but the focus of your complaint or to call 911 and ask the police to do the confronting for you.

I’m simply suggesting that even with our differences, we start practicing basic civility and respect for one another so that we may co-exist peacefully in this life.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Tradition Should Never Impede Progress

A friend of mine spent 26 years with a state police agency from which she retired as a captain. During one of our conversations she jokingly described her organization as “85 years of tradition unhampered by progress”. Knowing the sense of pride she has for the agency she spent the majority of her adult life, I understood that she was not being disparaging but also recognized the underlying reality to her words.

Tradition is a word that evokes strong emotion in all of us. We value our family traditions and we take great pains to keep the traditions alive for our children in hopes they will continue for our children’s children. The word “tradition” comes from the Latin meaning: to hand over for safekeeping. It is a ritual or a belief passed down within a society that is still maintained in the present but has strong ties to the past.

Whether it is families or institutions, we pride ourselves on the rituals that merge our past and our present. There is something to be said about upholding traditions when they instill positivity and a sense of belonging.

However, tradition can sometimes impede progress as my friend not so subtly pointed out. We can all relate to organizations that operate under the maxim, “we’ve always done it this way.” It is when we cling to past practice for the simple sake of it being the traditional way that we are closing ourselves to the possibility of new and better.

This instills fear in many people because the idea of moving away from tradition suggests that we are not being true to our values which are woven into our practices. The truth is, we are a nation founded upon change. Tradition is what denied the right and ability of women to vote for so long. Tradition is what justified slavery. Tradition is what kept interracial couples from marrying. Some people cling to their “traditions” as a way to validate their own antiquated beliefs – and that is what impedes progress.

To be “progressive” has such a negative connotation because it challenges traditions thereby labeling change agents as dangerous or rogue. Some even suggest that changing what we deem as traditional is a threat to mankind and believe it weakens the very fabric from which our legacy is woven.

Change for the sake of change is never wise when it comes to organizations and intuitions. But keeping things the same for the sake of tradition is just as irresponsible. For example, there is currently a large push in police organizations to move towards a more relaxed uniform. Aurora police officers don hardware on their uniforms that include a star, collar brass, nametag and award pins. There is a growing trend of police agencies that have transitioned to embroidered stars and shields so there are no moving parts on the uniform. Many have also evolved to military style BDU pants instead of the straight cut polyester blend uniform pants. I personally favor the appearance of the ornamental hardware and the militaristic look. One of the patrol officers challenged my preference and argued that officers on the street are jumping over fences and traipsing through backyards on any given day and the traditional style uniform is impractical in this arena. When I began to formulate my response, I realized I could offer no rebuttal other than my preference (my values) to keep with the tradition of our police department. His points were based on logic and empirical evidence to support his position. Mine were not.

There is honor in upholding traditions because we feel rooted to our ancestors and our institutions when we honor the legacies of the past. We all feel a responsibility to keep the fire ignited when we are handed the torch, but we must never be afraid to use our flames to illuminate a different way. It might lead to a better way.