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When Opposing Sides Find Middle Ground, We All Win

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On Dec. 1, 1990, Phillippe Cozette, a French construction worker, reached a grimy hand through a tiny crack in a rock wall and grabbed the similarly dirty hand of Graham Fagg of Great Britain.
That handshake, between a Frenchman and an Englishman, with its careful pumping in a close space, was more than just social courtesy.

This universal sign of a social contract was noteworthy because the crack in the rock was beneath the surface of the English Channel.

These two ordinary workers from the countries on either side of the Channel were chosen by lottery to be part of the historic breakthrough between French and British underwater construction teams.

Although skeptics predicted that the crews, beginning their work on opposite shores, would miss each other, good engineering prevailed.

Almost five years later, on May 6, 1994, the Queen of England joined French President Francois Mitterrand in a much cleaner handshake, celebrating the culmination of this joint project—a historic feat of both underwater engineering and international diplomacy.

Although an underwater link between Britain and France is a modern wonder, the origin of the idea is more dated.

In 1802, Albert Mathieu, a mining engineer from France, made a proposal to Napoleon Bonaparte that, to most, seemed like a crazy idea.

Mathieu suggested that a wooden, underwater carriageway be built, connecting the two often-conflicting nations.

To the ridicule of many, he anticipated gas lamps and candles providing illumination, horse-drawn carriages as transport and ventilation pipes, sticking out of the top of the water, installed at appropriate intervals, to handle the smoke. He advised that an artificial island be constructed in the middle for changing horses.

If trained engineers and common people scoffed at Mathieu’s idea, the diplomatic corps correctly warned that the current peace between France and England would not last and that an open connection between two contesting nations wasn’t prudent.

Through the years, both British and French military leaders opposed the idea and the notion languished, with many experts rejecting it as impractical and unsafe.

When British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher acknowledged that she would not continue to oppose the idea if it was funded privately, it gained new momentum.

After a design contest, digging began on opposite sides of the Channel, resulting in the breakthrough, which gave us today’s modern Chunnel.

I am grateful for Thatcher, Mitterrand, the Queen of England, Cozette and Fagg, along with a cast of thousands of unknown others who, over time, worked to make this happen.

My wanderlust and travel schedule have personally benefitted from their ingenuity, engineering and entrepreneurship.

But today I am thanking God for no less than Mathieu, whom some surely referred to as “Crazy Al,” when he first had the idea.

While many at the time ridiculed Mathieu and his absurd idea, with apologies to my English professors, I want to say that I am glad that he “thunk it up!”

By dreaming the impossible and proposing the improbable, Mathieu moved the unthinkable closer and made it imaginable.

When he suggested the outlandish idea, it became, as a consequence, slightly less unreasonable.

By dreaming and scheming along these seemingly absurd lines, Mathieu initiated a flowing stream of consciousness, enabling later-day engineers, economists, diplomats, soldiers, government officials and ordinary people to keep the notion afloat until it could become doable.

To my way of thinking, we need more people like Mathieu. Of course, proposing the unthinkable must always be guarded by other, boundary-keeping values. Simply having bizarre ideas is not what I am praising.

But, in a day in which our differences with others seem to define us and hold us hostage, I want to take a page from Mathieu’s book and propose that we work on impossible-sounding ideas, especially those that relate to connecting cultures and peoples who often are in conflict.

Let’s dream with Mathieu about how we can erect better emotional and intellectual bridges between the shores of vastly differing worldviews.

Let’s get over the fear of open connections with those with whom we disagree and figure out how to meet in the middle.

Let’s consider how to build a better mousetrap, but also how to devise a better way to reduce the mouse-like characteristics that make rats of all of us, at times.

Will you drive your little horse-drawn mental carriage with me, down the wooden planks of this lantern-lit idea, holding your breath and looking for a way to ventilate the smoky implications of this ridiculous-on-the-face-of-it idea?

God, give us many who are willing to envision what others think are outlandish dreams.

Bob Newell is ministry coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Athens, Greece. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, ItsGreek2U, and is used with permission.