A couple years ago my family took a long road trip. At the time, my husband and I were so at odds that I was terrified of having so many hours together, in a van, with nothing to distract us from each other and our differences. We’ve never had an easy marriage, but politics and a pandemic had pushed us further apart than we’d ever been — far enough that I wondered if we could ever bridge the gap again.
To remove the opportunity for arguments or awkwardness, I looked up “couple conversation starters” and saved them on my phone. I downloaded a kids podcast that would, at the very least, entertain our girls and give us something neutral to talk about. And I begged God to please, please help us keep the peace and even enjoy our time together. All my preparation worked for a while but inevitably one of us would step on a conversational land mine that led to whisper-shouting at each other or sitting in frustrated silence.
But then we drove by a small town, and we both noticed a row of houses sitting very close to the highway. Our eyes met, confused and amused. Almost in unison, we both exclaimed, “Why on earth would you build your house so close to the highway?! I would never!”
We laughed, and I breathed deeper. I found a country music station on the radio and relaxed a bit as we began to sing along.
Now, clearly, our similar views on house-to-highway proximity and our shared love of Garth Brooks didn’t resolve all our issues. In fact, those issues are still present today, though they’re not quite as sharp or strong. But realizing that we still had some things in common — even if they were the smallest things — was enough to shift my perspective and my attitude. It also created momentum, prompting me to look for and remember other, more significant things we still shared; a start to healing some of the rift between us.
It reminded me of a song called, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” In this song, a couple is close to breaking up as they realize they no longer have anything in common. But then they remember how they both loved the classic movie and that one detail changes the tone of the conversation.
“Well, that’s one thing we’ve got.” This last line of the chorus is so hopeful to me, as if it’s a place to start again. We’ve got this one thing; surely we can find or create others.
When we’re at odds with family, friends, co-workers, or neighbors, finding one thing in common can truly change the tone of a conversation and even the direction of the relationship. Sharing something, anything at all, can relax our posture into something a little less defensive and a little more welcoming. It can give us a pathway back to one another, refreshing our affection and even respect for one another.
Unless we can do this, we’ll continue growing apart. We’ll keep believing the other person is in complete opposition of everything we are and believe in. We’ll fail to trust them, we’ll refuse to respect them, and our love for that person will become withered and weak. And then what?
At that point, will we be able to change their mind about the thing we’re disagreeing about? Will our disappointment and disgust convince them our way is the better way? In a relationship that damaged or distant, are we able to show them God’s light and love?
No, no, and no.
In Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, he says he is “all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9:22 CSB). The context of this statement is that he’s defending his lifestyle choices and the sacrifice of some of his rights to the Corinthians, explaining that each of these decisions has been an effort to connect with people who need the good news of Jesus. He attempts to be as least offensive as possible to each person he hopes to help. Therefore, he says, he becomes all things to all people.
For a long time I felt Paul’s approach was deceitful or even weak. Why would he pretend or simply give into what other people want him to be or do or say? Be yourself, Paul! But Paul wasn’t not being himself. He was simply putting aside his own wants and needs for a bit in order to find common ground with people he wanted to connect with. As a matter of fact, the New Living Translation puts it exactly in those words!
I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some.
I Corinthians 9:22
Don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t trying to save my husband in the story I shared. But in a way, rediscovering common ground and choosing to plant ourselves there has saved our relationship. And I wonder if it might help you with some of the hard relationships in your life.
Think about that coworker who criticizes you in front of the boss. Or that neighbor who flies a giant, offensive flag in their yard — or just lets their dog do its business in everyone else’s yard! Think about your aunt who rants on Facebook or your friend whose parenting choices are always the exact opposite of yours.
Can you find common ground? A football team you both root for? An appreciation for cat videos? A crispy hotdog and gooey s’mores around the fire pit? An old band or new movie? The color turquoise or Taylor Swift’s new album or the coffee shop downtown? Can you find something and then linger there? Begin there? Build from there?
It’s true that some people grow apart and some relationships end. But for the ones that still have common ground somewhere underneath the rubble of conflict and pain, healing can take place and good can be done.
Let’s commit to finding — and standing on — common ground.