I recently married just a few weeks ago. I am in my mid-50’s and my wife in her early 50’s. Getting married at this time of life is not like that first marriage in younger days when you set out to build a life. By this time, quite a bit of life has already been built and now you are bringing them together. We each had a home that worked in our individual situations, but neither would work well joining our situations. So, we found a place that would enable us to join our situations and create a brand new situation. We joined our families, creating a new family.
We are new in this North Texas neighborhood that looks a lot like a million neighborhoods here in Texas and pretty much everywhere. I met the neighbor next to us just a few days after moving. He is a friendly and kind individual (we are on a corner, so he is the only neighbor next to us). I had met no one else until a couple of days ago. It is that meeting and conversation that compelled me to write this post.
This chance meeting and conversation took place because I was out doing yardwork. I would say I was doing yardwork like a good suburbanite, except most suburbanites here pay someone else to do it. In the few weeks we have been here, I have yet to see anyone mowing their own lawn. I prefer to do it myself. I am in the middle of doing the trimming when a fellow comes out of a home across the street. We see each other so we waved politely. He was carrying an acoustic guitar and had come outside to play on the step outside the front door (I can’t even say “stoop” as it was not a small staircase. Houses are rarely built with a front porch any longer let alone a stoop). Being a guitar player myself, I had to acknowledge the guitar and mentioned that I play, too. There seemed to be a desire to continue a conversation, so rather than yell back and forth across the street, I laid down my trimmer and walked over.
We shook hands and as we did, he said, “Semper Fi,” so my assumption was that he had been a Marine. I did not ask, and he did not say. He had a long beard and a mustache that covered his upper lip. He had dark skin and a Middle Eastern appearance. There were several tattoos visible on his right arm. He told me his name was Omar and I said I was David. We said it was nice to meet each other and went on to talk about the guitar, how long we had been playing, and what we liked to play. We found we had some musical likes in common, mostly in the classic rock genre.
The conversation then drifted other directions. He shared that he was there from Washington state visiting his parents. He was originally from Houston and said that while he liked the weather better in Washington and San Diego where he had lived previously (he didn’t like Texas heat and humidity), he always felt that people here in Texas were among the friendliest he had known. I agreed that had been my experience as well. I said that I have lived everywhere in my life from southern California to Rhode Island. Here the conversation turned in a direction that I found refreshing.
I mentioned that people in many places are looked upon as rude or curt, but if you make the effort to understand them as they understand themselves and how their world works, you discover that what you take for rudeness is often little more than a difference in personality or can be contextualized within the pace in which different people live in different regions. He replied that he learned that traveling in New York. We both agreed that America is not just the America with which I am familiar and in which I grew up where I feel comfortable, and where everyone acts like I do. America is a land of great diversity, of multiple cultures and traditions.
Just think of The Great Seal of the United States that bears the motto, E Pluribus Unum, which is Latin for “Out of Many, One.” Yes, as Americans we are all one, but this does not mean that the many are dissolved into anyone’s idea of what “the One” should be. To speak in Levinasian terms, we do not reduce the Other to the Same. The motto on The Great Seal is about simultaneous unity and diversity. Unity without diversity is mere uniformity, taking away individual and diverse identities that enrich us. Diversity without unity is purposeless and tends to chaos. Unity must preserve diversity and diversity must aim at integration and unity. It is a difficult balancing act and can too often be aiming at unity by insisting that everyone else conform to my individual difference.
Okay, back to the conversation I am writing about. We also agreed that if one is able to travel, just within America, you can learn so much and get a very different picture of people (how much truer this is on a global scale!). I also said how important it is to learn how to listen to others if we are to understand others as they understand themselves. He perked up and said, “Yes! We have lost the art of conversation!”
How true are his words! One of the things I said was that the lost art of conversation among us was something that I attributed to talk radio in the 90’s. Rather than having a real conversation, we learned that there were good guys and bad guys. The good guys love our country, are true patriots, and want the very best for us. The bad guys (usually the other political party) want to destroy everything we built our country on and want to take it away from us and make it into something it is not. The idea that there are different people with different ideas and beliefs, and that each love our country and the lofty ideals to which it strives but have varying ideas on how to best achieve those ideals, is an idea lost on too many of us. Therefore, we must engage in “culture wars.” There is no conversation to be had. We just have to “own” the other side. Language is no longer for conversation, but to employ rhetorical techniques to win an argument against the bad guy. We all think we “have the facts” but are myopically clueless as to the mechanisms of our own minds that shape our understanding of “the facts.”
What I am describing is extremely characteristic of cable news. It is an exception to watch an actual conversation. Instead, we are treated to a lot of yelling, talking over others, and interruption. A question gets asked, the person being interviewed is not given a chance to answer it before being bludgeoned by the host and having the entire exchange being redirected and mischaracterized in a way to make the guest look as poorly as possible. Impressionable people that we are, we behave exactly the same on social media and even in face-to-face conversations.
What I shared and enjoyed with my neighbor’s son, was a true conversation. We noted how we can even disagree and still acknowledge our obligation to do right by each other and that if we continued talking we can even come to modify our perspectives and learn from the other. We agreed how we may not have our convictions changed, but still come to understand the other person in ways we were blind to before—just by sincerely listening to each other.
My friend, Omar, and I had a chance conversation about how important it is to have a conversation. To be sure, there are threats to the lofty ideals to which our nation aspires, and I am convicted that those threats often come from those who yell and scream about liberty and love for America the most. There are fights to be had, true. But I am even more convicted that our default needs to be learning again how to have a conversation; how to have an exchange of ideas and beliefs; how to listen to the other and learn about them than to reduce them to what I think they are; to understand that from conversation a completely new and better understanding can arise.
I do not know whether Omar and I shall cross paths again. But even if not, I am better for having met him and, maybe more importantly, reminded to be better—a better person and one who seeks to have real conversations and to do good.