Shadowing Pádraig Ó Tuama: Common Ground is Not the Goal

This is the final part of a series on my month shadowing Pádraig Ó Tuama, poet, theologian, and leader of The Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland. To read the introduction to the series, click here. To read the rest of the series, click here


For those who don’t know, my master’s is in conflict resolution and reconciliation. I’ve had the good fortune of conversing on the issues I studied in divided societies the world over.

One consistent theme is the language of “common ground.” It’s not that the search for common ground was the only focus, but rather that it’s almost universally acknowledged as essential to bridge divides.

And there’s truth in that. There’s a lot of fear and hatred going around. Much of it toward people, places, and cultures seen as different. It may behoove us to learn all the ways those we fear are actually like us.

While debriefing Narrative 4 circles I facilitate in and beyond Nashville, I often hear people say things like, “This experience reminds me of how much we all have in common. Most of the time, we’re all focused on all our differences, but we just need to remember that we are all more alike than we are different.”

This is a lovely sentiment, and one that may even be true. But it also might not be. While prioritizing the search for common ground has great use, it also runs the risk of assuming difference is bad and must be overcome.

Speaking to a church in Glasgow, Pádraig said, “I’m less and less interested in the search for common ground. What I am interested in is cultivating a fruitful rather than frightful difference.” In other words, we need to come to see difference as something that bears good fruit rather than bears arms.

Watching the world catch fire at the moment, it looks as if too much of the world believes that difference is dangerous. And some difference is dangerous, but not all difference—and perhaps not even most. Healthy differences enrich our lives. Travel is one way to experience this firsthand. The foods, colors, architectures, languages, songs and dances, fashions. All these make for an exciting and eclectic world.

Of course, sometimes our differences can be quite difficult. But you really don’t need me to tell you that.

In the end, even while finding common ground can be transformative, it may not be the best goal. More and more, I’m not sure common ground can save us—because there may not be enough of it. What may save us is learning how to live well with difference.

We will never live among people exactly like us. What will always be true for people living next to people is that we will differ, in large and small ways. Where common ground can remind us of shared humanity, let’s embrace it. And still, we must remember that uncommon ground isn’t evidence of unshared humanity.

Plus, just think how boring the world would be if we were truly all just alike.


This concludes the series. My thanks to Pádraig Ó Tuama for allowing me to shadow him for the month.

2 Comments

  1. I find myself wanting to push back on this. Both common ground and difference need to be unpacked in order to decide the degree to which either is beneficial. Ultimately, I seek common ground with those I have disagreements with because it makes them more likely to engage with me on critical differences. Also, it makes me less likely to dehumanize them.

    • Michael McRay says:

      I agree, Diana. Both do need to be unpacked further. As I say in the piece, some differences are in fact dangerous and don’t need to be accommodated (racism, Islamophobia, sexism, et al.). Seeking common ground in order to create critical engagement is important. And yes, it does decrease the likelihood of dehumanization. But difference needn’t lead us to dehumanize. It often does, though. I guess I’m hoping to call our attention to this so that we can fight the tendency to dehumanize what we find different. Thanks for reading and engaging!

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