Maria Shriver on finding common ground with people who have different views

The NBC News special anchor penned an essay about bridging the divides between our political, religious and life experiences.

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By Maria Shriver

The full-length version of this essay originally appeared in Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper.

I've been thinking...

“We’re all different, and I think we’ve forgotten that that’s OK.” Those were the words that Ellen DeGeneres used to defend herself after people became outraged by a picture of her sitting next to former President George W. Bush at a Dallas Cowboys game.

It was, and is, stunning to me that she felt she had to defend herself for sitting next to someone who she considers a friend, but who happens to have different political opinions. I mean, let’s all pause and let that sink in for a moment.

Two people watching a football game. Two people enjoying themselves and their friendship. Two people being kind to each other. That makes people mad?

Are we supposed to only talk to, sit with and be friends with people who share our exact same opinions about God, country and politics?

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I worry that most who reacted negatively to Ellen’s picture were only reacting because of their own personal opinions. They couldn’t give her the respect to make her own choice about her beliefs, her friendships or whom she chooses to spend time with.

These days, people just seem to despise anyone who is not in their political wheelhouse. Can we not be friends with someone from a different political party anymore? Can we not be friends with someone from a different religious background? Can we not be friends with someone who comes from a different walk of life, or who is a different color or who has different experiences than our own? Is that where we are now as a nation and as people? I fear that for many, the answer is “yes.”

I understand that many are reacting strongly right now because tensions are so high in our nation. A lot of people are hurting, scared, struggling and worried about where we’re headed next. Many fear the “other” because they view those different than them as a threat to their own lives, futures, and beliefs.

But if you ask me, our political problems will only deepen if we all retreat into our own corners.

It’s this kind of thinking that is driving us apart. It’s this that is keeping us apart and preventing our families, our friendships, our politics and our country from coming together and bridging the divide. It’s this kind of thinking — this kind of judgment — that was hurled at Ellen. This should cause us all to stop and dig deep within ourselves.

Is this really who we want to be? Is this really what we want to teach our children? Is this how we truly feel? I don’t believe it is. I won’t accept it, and I don’t think you should either.

Think about how you feel when hate and judgment are directed your way. Does it make you feel good? Does it make you want to show kindness and love to yourself and others? Of course not.

The reaction to Ellen sitting with former President Bush presents us all with a teachable moment. Do we, or do we not, want to be leaders of a movement that fosters kindness, acceptance, compassion, understanding and love? It takes an open heart and an open mind.

It’s easy to spew hate, but it’s also small-minded. It’s easy to post a mean tweet, but it is also cowardly and weak. It’s so easy to judge, but it’s way harder to love someone who is different than you or who you think is different than you.

I believe it’s our job right now to try and figure out what we have in common. Maybe we both have felt like the “other” at some point in our lives. Maybe we both feel shame about something that we’ve done wrong and desperately want to right. Maybe we both are worried about the state of our nation’s heart and want to find common ground so we can work together to do better. Maybe, just maybe, Ellen and former President Bush were talking about that.

The fact is, we will never know what we have in common — we will never heal our divide — unless we can agree to sit down next to someone unexpected and begin a friendship. Try it and see how it makes you feel. It just might heal your heart, your world, and our world at large.

This essay has been condensed.