Southerners are storytellers. We love to tell stories, outrageous, convoluted, highly embellished, wandering stories. Always alert for an opening in the conversation, we leap at the chance to insert a favorite story. Stories are part of our that elusive quality, southern charm. For the most part, they are just that; charming. But when we tell them to ourselves, thatâ€™s a problem. I know. I spent much of my life doing that.
Stories are often told Â to curry favor – a blatantly underhanded but sometimes successful, tool to get oneâ€™s way. Â Sometimes Â weâ€™re just being kind. â€œWhat a beautiful babyâ€, is so much better to hear than, â€œDo you plan to get cosmetic surgery on that nose?â€ And Â sometimes we tell stories to ourselves to keep going thru hardship – thatâ€™s called denial. Â Denial gets a bad wrap these days, but Â it can be useful on occasion.
But telling myself stories is treacherous, as I have recently been reminded. For years, I have been living in my own comfortable bubble. Sure that all â€œreasonableâ€ people shared my world view; my concept of right and wrong, my standards of civility and morality.
And then November 8 happened. Like many of us,Â I was â€œflattenedâ€ by the news and struggled to come to grips with my fear Â for our country’s future. Â But many of my friends were ecstatic at the news! Â Friends with whom I have celebrated, commisserated, shared confidences, assuming that we also shared world views. Confused and impatient with my reaction, they were optomisticÂ for the future; anxiousÂ to put behind an era in which they felt forgottenÂ and marginalized. Â How could I had been so deafÂ to the people around me? Consumed by my own â€œbusyness,â€ secure in my own little bubble.Â Blithely assuming they shared my beliefs, because, well, theyâ€™re my friends!
On the first day of English literature class at Berkeley, the professor announced, peering over his black rimmed seventies glasses at us â€œIâ€™m going to threaten every one of your core beliefs. I am going to challenge everything you hold dear.â€
It was a moment I will not forget. Still today I remember the cold terror, the icy knot in my stomach. I see myself in the semi-circle of
one-armed desks, cornered, threatened; that country girl from Louisiana, outclassed by the sophisticated kids from Eastern prep schools. I gripped the edge of the desk, fighting the urge to bolt from the room. But I couldnâ€™t leave; I needed the credits. So I stayed, bracingÂ myself for 10 weeks of rancor and humiliation.
But instead,Â the course introduced me toÂ different ways of viewing the world.Â Far from feeling defensive, I was fascinated to learn how other people, other cultures, came to believe as they did. Â And Â it turned outÂ at the core, I wasnâ€™t all that different from those fresh faced kids. We agreed more than we disagreed on most important things.I actually made new friends.Â During those weeks I discovered that some of what I Â “believed,” I had simply absorbed Â from people around meÂ without much thought. Â But most of what I believed was not changed; just the opposite! Â A deeper, more critical understanding only strengthened them. Â And most importantly, Â I learned I could live in harmony with those with whom I did not agree; and they with me.
If there had been a good alternative to facing the perceived threat of English 101, I would have grabbed it. And missed a formative educational experience on which I would rely many times in my life, an experience not to be missed. It’s a small,Â oversimplified example. Â But it illustrates the point. Â As Â families, communities, as a country, I hope, I pray we can Â face our fear of confrontation, talk and listen thoughtfully. I think we will be rewarded by the outcome. I refuse to believe we are a country of self-righteous pedants or unthinking bigots. We are bigger than that.
But first –
We need to talk. We really have no choice.
Instead of a book, this week I’m posting a link to an outstanding and timely Â Ted Talk by Rob Willer Â on the art of civil and productive conversation between liberals and conservatives. Â A must read. Here’s the link. Â http://bit.ly/2kdTjNw