Monica Sheppard mug 2018

Monica Sheppard

I was so proud last week to see two of my friends declare their willingness to come together in peace, in spite of their opposing views on the value of James Taylor’s music. It was a benchmark moment that I believe we can all learn from. The friend who finds Taylor’s music abhorrent declares his venomous feelings often, banishing any who disagree with his perspective from the pleasure of his friendship. So powerful is his position, in fact, that I have tended to keep my thoughts on the subject to myself out of fear of drawing his wrath. It was a beautiful thing to watch as these friends determine that the value of their friendship was far greater than any strongly held taste in music.

So, this really did happen, but it was obviously a tongue-in-cheek scenario and I have over-dramatized the circumstances to make a point about how we look at the topics that some consider deal-breakers in relationships. Politics, religion, lifestyle all come to mind when I think of topics over which some friends and family have been willing to end relationships in opposing perspectives. The inability to live, work, or love together with people we disagree with is one of the most sad by-products of our current social climate, isn’t it? I can’t help but think, when I see friendships end over political arguments, what are those politics really contributing to your life that would make a longtime supportive and enriching relationship worth ending?

Right before Thanksgiving, the Pew Research Center published the results of a 2017 survey in which they asked thousands of Americans to simply tell them where they find meaning in life. Along with the statistical results they chose to share one hundred of the responses with this prelude, “We encourage you to explore the reflections of Americans from many walks of life. Some are hopeful, others bleak, some funny and others tragic. But each one tells a part of the story of the American experience — a small part of our collective hopes, dreams, triumphs and tragedies.”

I’ve come nowhere close to reading all one hundred notes, but I have enjoyed revisiting the collection to reflect on the experiences and perspectives of such a varied cross section of our American society. I encourage you to check it out as well, at pewforum.org/interactives/what-keeps-us-going. The reflections themselves are often very specific and personal, but the themes that emerged from the processing of all the responses make a very clear case for the fact that family is far and above the most important source of meaning for people’s lives. In fact, 69 percent of the respondents mention family in their answer, with 34 percent of those specifying children or grandchildren and 20 percent noting their spouse or partner. A relatively distant second is career, with 34 percent of the answers pointing to their work as the thing that brings meaning to their lives. These two are followed in order by finances and money, faith and spirituality, friends, activities and hobbies, home, health, and learning and education, each representing 11 to 23 percent in number of times mentioned.

As I write this column, I have two cats curled up and purring in my lap, making it hard for me to reach the keyboard, honestly, so I must admit that I was surprised that pets were last on the list at 5 percent. My daughter has headed back to college today, so these crazy pets and their unconditional version of love are a big part of what makes my life at home enjoyable, but I guess they don’t really bring meaning to my life as much as comfort, responsibility and, of course, chaos. Our pets forgive us for what must seem some pretty atrocious behavior to them. (How dare we leave for work every day rather than playing and sleeping with them 24/7? What kind of horrible pack members are we?) What would our lives look like if we gave the humans close to us the same kind of regard and forgiveness for what feels to be unforgiveable behavior?

For example, when we think of that political hill that we are wont to stand on, why should we give our opinion so much power as to allow it to damage the kinds of relationships that most Americans believe are their very reason for living? Especially over something as trivial as simply holding a different opinion from ours. Of survey respondents, 19 percent noted that their friends are critical to their drive in life. When added to the family data, we hit nearly 90 percent of Americans believing that either their family or friends bring absolute meaning to their lives. If that is not a common denominator, I don’t know what is. Notice that politics didn’t even make the list. Where are our priorities in this nasty political game we are playing?

All of my reflection on family over the last couple of weeks has reminded me that these people that I hold dear are the very foundation for who I am. And the friends that I have collected over the years are literally woven into the tapestry that defines my life. While we don’t always agree on the minutia of the matters of state and country with which we are bombarded on a daily basis, there is not one single consideration that should overturn the love and regard I feel for these members of my pack and the richness they have brought to my life. I hope to remember this unconditional regard as we move on to the next contentious hill, and I can only hope that they will give me the same pass.

Monica Sheppard is a freelance graphic designer, beekeeper, mother and community supporter living in Rome.