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, that’s a problem. I know. I spent much of my life doing that.
Stories are often told to curry favor – a blatantly underhanded but sometimes successful, tool to get one’s way. Sometimes we’re just being kind. “What a beautiful baby”, is so much better to hear than, “Do you plan to get cosmetic surgery on that nose?” And sometimes we tell stories to ourselves to keep going thru hardship – that’s called denial. Denial gets a bad wrap these days, but 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 “reasonable” 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, I was “flattened” by the news and struggled to come to grips with my fear for our country’s future. But many of my friends were ecstatic at the news! Friends with whom I have celebrated, commisserated, shared confidences, assuming that we also shared world views. Confused and impatient with my reaction, they were optomistic for the future; anxious to put behind an era in which they felt forgotten and marginalized. How could I had been so deaf to the people around me? Consumed by my own “busyness,” secure in my own little bubble. Blithely assuming they shared my beliefs, because, well, they’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 “I’m going to threaten every one of your core beliefs. I am going to challenge everything you hold dear.”
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 couldn’t leave; I needed the credits. So I stayed, bracing myself for 10 weeks of rancor and humiliation.
But instead, the course introduced me to different ways of viewing the world. Far from feeling defensive, I was fascinated to learn how other people, other cultures, came to believe as they did. And it turned out at the core, I wasn’t all that different from those fresh faced kids. We agreed more than we disagreed on most important things.I actually made new friends. During those weeks I discovered that some of what I “believed,” I had simply absorbed from people around me without much thought. But most of what I believed was not changed; just the opposite! A deeper, more critical understanding only strengthened them. And most importantly, 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, oversimplified example. But it illustrates the point. As families, communities, as a country, I hope, I pray we can 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 Ted Talk by Rob Willer on the art of civil and productive conversation between liberals and conservatives. A must read. Here’s the link. http://bit.ly/2kdTjNw