Jeff Naylor was the scheduled speaker at semi-programmed meeting for worship on March 5, 2017.
Like many people here, I had a tough November 8. I didn’t sleep much, and I’ve had many troubled nights since. The worst part was talking to our two daughters—one who reacted with physical illness, and the other who asked plaintively, “So we’re not going to have a woman president?” I told her that, oh yes, we will most definitely have a woman president—many, in fact—just not this one. I tried to find encouraging things to say, but it was hard. I felt that my daughters had been betrayed by the people of my generation and the people of my gender. I’d always read the news in detail, but since the election, I maybe read the headlines now, and that’s enough. I have cycled through strong emotions. Anger. Shame. Fear. Disbelief.
Well, not complete disbelief. For many years I had been searching my soul over the painful divisions in our communities and in our country. In Washington and in many state capitals, partisan battles have conquered common sense as one-upmanship and gridlock carry the day. Politicians condemn their opponents’ policies, then go on to demonize the opponents themselves.
A candidate for president saying outrageous things did not shock me. But the fact that so many of my fellow citizens flocked to his message—that was shocking. Though the outcome of the election caught me off guard, I already knew that, regardless of how it turned out, there were some fundamental things I did not understand.
I remembered hearing conservatives over the past several years say they didn’t recognize their country anymore, that they didn’t feel like they belonged. Which was pretty much exactly how I was feeling. The pendulum swings back and forth, and we alternate between being winners and losers. Maybe after the next election my anxiety and dread will give way to smug satisfaction, maybe a little gloating, that I was right all along, that the world is going the right way again.
But how could anything positive happen while so many, from one group or another, are so frustrated? I had the sense that these two “sides” are not truly as far apart as it often seems, and that in any case, lasting changes for good could happen only if common ground could be found.
I realized I wanted to talk with the neighbor who lives two doors down from us. I’d gathered from letters he’d written to the newspaper and from signs for the “other” candidates in his yard that he had different viewpoints than I had. I also knew he was an intelligent, thoughtful, caring guy. So I wrote him a note, stuck it on his porch. Told him a little of how I was feeling about things. Told him I wanted to listen, wanted to hear about his joys, his worries; what got him out of bed in the morning, and what he turned to when things got tough. If he wanted, I wrote, I’d offer some of my thoughts; otherwise I would just listen.
Let’s talk, he wrote back. So we went down the block for coffee. He’d made a list of all the major planks of the platforms of the Republican and Democratic parties, and we went through them one by one. Disagreed on lots of them. But as I listened, I realized I was hearing a human being who had real concerns behind his position on immigration and his complaints about the cost of health care. I believe we both heard each other when he explained that he viewed a photographer refusing to work for a gay-marriage ceremony as a matter of religious freedom, and when—about the same situation—I spoke of the hurt that my friends feel when somebody turns away from you because of who you are.
We found a few precious areas of agreement: compromise positions like linking a higher minimum wage with a reduction in welfare benefits in areas where good jobs are available. Or we disagreed about how much or on what government should spend, but agreed that all spending should be paid for in a balanced budget. We realized that we wanted the same things: safety, good health care, good education, promising job opportunities; but we often prioritized these things in different ways. When we finished our talk, we decided to write a joint letter to the newspaper about the experience. Our specific proposals certainly had flaws, but the point was that two people starting from different places could sit down to have a rational, constructive discussion.
I wondered where I could go next, and I thought of another newspaper contributor whose letters always made me fume or cringe. So I did a little internet stalking and found his email, then wrote him a similar note, that I was writing because his letters did that to me, but that I wanted to hear him out. He wrote back as well. We told each other a little about our upbringing, our families, about financial struggles and our religious background. We didn’t talk too much politics, but covered a few issues with respect for each other’s opinions. We did agree that starting the Iraq War had been a mistake.
A month later, he wrote a particularly nasty letter to the newspaper, attacking “left-wingers” as well as their opinions. I wrote him to ask what was wrong, and told him I hardly recognized the guy I had been corresponding with. He said he’d written the letter in anger and apologized for its tone. I pointed out another fact he could have used to support his argument and suggested the letter would have been more effective with more evidence and less vitriol; he responded with amusement that I reminded him of his old English professor. The upshot for me is that this guy who started in my brain as nothing but an offensive mouthpiece is now another human being with hopes and fears and impatience and joys and frustrations, like me. And I hope he feels he knows a little more about someone he might have been quick to dismiss before we talked.
I don’t know what this is all about, what it means. Sometimes it seems I am wasting my time. Inside, it feels like a wrestling match between Quaker testimonies: community vs. integrity. I want to establish better relations with my neighbors and fellow citizens who have different views, but can I do so without compromising my own principles? I am not trying to appease, and I have no patience for racist or bigoted comments. And this experiment hasn’t kept me from action to support the ways I believe we must go forward, for example marching with the Caravan of Love in Minneapolis. It was quite the moment when we thronged onto Cedar Avenue in the shadow of the Riverside Plaza towers, chanting, “Say it loud, say it clear, immigrants are welcome here!”
Again, I’m wondering where the experiment could go next. I’ve been testing the limits—testing my limits. I contacted a white South African man whose tweets have been blatantly racist with a similar letter emphasizing my readiness to listen, and that conversation may be getting underway. And I’m considering writing a college friend I haven’t been in contact with lately, but for some reason having that kind of discussion with someone I knew well is a prospect that is more unnerving than the others, and I’m hesitating.
I know I’m not the only person thinking along these lines. A few weeks back, someone mentioned the 100 days / 100 dinners program, and I’m looking into that. Many of the recent messages in worship and in other forums here have voiced similar ideas about the need to hear each other. There are notices in the bulletin about a couple of related events later this month (I’ve seen the “Beyond the Divide” film, and can tell you that it’s an unusual and uplifting story).
Another moment of communication: A group of women from Minnesota riding a bus to Washington for the post-inauguration protest filed into a convenience store in Ohio for dinner in their homemade pink knit hats. When a group of truckers in the parking lot called out, “Who’d you vote for?”, most slipped inside without answering. One stayed behind to hash it out with one of the truckers, the two mostly naming faults in the other’s choice for president. But once done, they smiled and shook hands.
And then, the remarkable event at the Standing Rock protests, which came after violence that injured many and maimed one young woman’s arm. A list of supplies requested for Morton County sheriff’s officers had been posted online. A group of activists purchased those items and presented them to the authorities monitoring their protest. In my book, recognition of the humanitarian needs of the “enemy” in the midst of conflict is nothing short of noble, reflecting the principle that we are all in a shared struggle whether we realize it or not.
Perhaps you can think of other examples.
I’ll end with a couple of queries:
– Are there any with different viewpoints in your circle of acquaintances with whom a constructive dialog could occur?
– How can starting a discussion with someone who has a different perspective benefit both of you?