By Gina Sullivan
I recently returned from a trip to Ireland where I was blessed to spend two weeks traveling the Irish countryside and getting to know the locals in small to mid-size towns with names like Whitegate, Mountshannon, Kenmare, and Kilaloe. This trip, which I had dreamed about since, well, as long as I can remember, checked a fairly sizeable box on my personal bucket list. It was everything I pictured Ireland would be but more beautiful – rolling, emerald green hills, stone houses and thatch-roofed cottages, ancient castles and churches, colorful streetscapes, and inviting pubs filled with music. What I could not have imagined, however, was how lovely and warm the Irish people would be, and how the many interactions and conversations I had would change me.
Because I work in the field of communications, it is my job to transmit information, stories and narratives about the Congregation and our work outward to the world. The transmitting part I know, it’s the receiving part that can be tricky, mainly when the feedback is from those who do not agree with us. It’s a microcosm of what is going on in this country. Civil discourse, defined as “an engagement in conversation intended to enhance understanding,” has been replaced with vitriol in social media conversations where consequences are absent, and perhaps more concerning, avoidance and silence in our interpersonal conversations – even with family and close friends. Not so in Ireland.
One of the commitments of the Congregation of St. Joseph is to “Respectfully engage people who may hold different values or worldviews to bring about personal and cultural transformation.” I held this intention as I engaged in conversation with the Irish. Because we stayed in a very small town, we got to know the townspeople personally. They were curious about us and asked many questions about what was going on in the U.S. They listened, rather than simply waiting to speak, and were never sarcastic or disrespectful. When we spoke about their concerns -Brexit being foremost currently – even when one disagreed with another about whether it was a good idea for England to withdraw from the European Union and how it would affect Ireland, they were still cordial and respected the other’s views. Civil discourse demonstrated, I thought, although they would not define it as such. To the Irish, it is simply being polite.
I came away from my trip with a renewed value on listening and civility; on relationships over opinion; on people over politics. Like the Sisters for whom I work, this does not mean I don’t have issues I care deeply about or that I won’t express my views. But it does mean the way in which I communicate and conduct myself with those who hold different views than I do, both at work and at home, sets an example and matters. A return to civil discourse begins with me.
Someone once said, “The best things in life are the people we love, the places we have been and the memories we have made along the way.” My journey to the Emerald Isle was all that but much more. It was a road I needed to travel…and it definitely rose to meet me.
About the Author
Gina Sullivan is the Director of Communications for the Congregation of St. Joseph and is also an Associate. She is the mother of two daughters ages 21 and 18 and step-mother to another daughter age 17 and son age 19. She enjoys cooking, walking, reading, playing with her three mischievous cats, and experiencing new places and people