Ken

How a Prospective Political Foe Changed My Perspective

In an unprecedented change of pace, I found myself setting my phone aside in a Jiffy Lube waiting room a few weeks ago to engage in conversation with a few strangers.  Typically, I’d avoid speaking with anyone in such a public space, preferring the safety and confirmation biases that my phone screen, social media, and news app offer.  But as we waited, the few of us cracked light jokes about mechanics’ ability to find new problems in the deepest, unknown recesses of our engines.  As the room cleared out, though, I was left alone with one stranger, whose inquest went far deeper than windshield washer fluid.

The man asked me benign but packed questions at the beginning, as though I could only captivate his attention by offering my full Wikipedia bio.  We spoke about our upbringing, life travels, experiences, and careers.  I learned his wife is a traveling nurse, especially vital during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that he was rarely rooted to one place for too long.  I begrudgingly repeated my sermon about my corporate job, apartment life, and other fragments of the speech I deliver to my aunts at Thanksgiving. 

In the back of my head, I kept wondering whether this stranger had poor social awareness or carried a genuine interest in deep, provoking waiting room discourse.  With Breonna Taylor and George Floyd’s death not too far in the nation’s rearview mirror, he opened up about his formation in a diverse military city, and his children’s participation in racial justice rallies in their respective cities. He was eager to learn my perspective. He didn’t address Mr Floyd or Ms Taylor or Ahmaud Arbery, but the way he spoke about his past and present, it became evident he was aware of these people and the issues of systemic oppression. Just as I began letting my guard down and engaging in deeper discourse, his name was called, and he was gone with a quick but heartfelt goodbye. 

I reverted to my phone screen, somewhat enlightened but mostly unmoved.  It was the kind of exchange where you think “that was pleasant,” and proceed to wash them from memory. 

Not ten minutes later, he reappeared.  Thinking he forgot something, I smiled from behind my mask and then looked back down at the NPR article I’d been reading.  In fact, he had left something behind, but it wasn’t a wallet or cell phone that compelled him to leave his completed car.  He’d left our conversation unfinished.

A bit unsettled, I dug my heels in, wondering how much deeper two strangers could possibly go in a civil manner.  And he immediately nodded towards my Black Lives Matter wristband, contorting his face as he shared his concept of BLM, believing that, as a Christian, “all lives matter,” and anything to the contrary was “dangerous.” Normally I’d be outraged by such a stance, but the calm in his voice kept my aggression at bay.  In a hushed tone, he asked me how I’d shaped my perspectives.  There was no condemnation in his voice, no judgment, only genuine wonder at why and how and why I’d adopted this stance.  I shared my faith background, my deeper understanding of history, and my urge to participate in such a powerful and peaceful movement. We locked eyes at key inflection points – speaking about our faith, our fractured understanding of racial injustice, and our overall lack of answers.  I found myself uncomfortable in the topic and yet somehow so comfortable around this stranger.  He nodded.  He looked on pensively.   He did not judge, did not interrupt, did not disagree.  He listened to hear me. 

As the mechanics pulled my car to the front and I completed my payment, the man finally introduced himself as “Ken,” thanking me for a genuine dialogue and asking if he could pray for me.  I obliged, and he put his hand on my shoulder, and prayed for me in front of the large glass Jiffy Lube windowpane.  With masked smiles and kind sentiment, Ken and I parted ways.

***

Reflecting later, the sincerity and delicacy of Ken’s approach to our discussion was nothing short of brilliant.  My assumption is that, early on, he saw a Black Lives Matter wristband and felt a disparity, a misalignment.  But the beauty in his approach was in its safety.  When Ken spoke, he created a safe space – a space in which I felt comfortable and aligned, not angered.

He sought to extrapolate similarities; our faiths bring us to the same understanding of “true north;” that is, we believe in the same end goal.  We are both aware of the pains facing our world today.  And, above all else, he galvanized us around our shared humanity.

When I think about our partisan world, so often, I see how tribalism dominates over all other forms of identity.  Instead of reverting to identity politics and rancor, Ken brought us to the same team.  Only when that had been established did he bring up ideological differences; at which point he expressed a genuine curiosity in unpacking differences and creating shared understanding. If there was a playbook on how to engage a stranger in a critical conversation, I believe Ken ran the perfect route.

This encounter grows in power every time I reflect on it.  Racial strife, a contentious election, social media, and hyper partisanship have eroded the possibilities around respectful chance encounters.  I keep thinking what might have happened had I “met” someone with Ken’s views on a social media platform. How quickly would we dismiss one another’s opinions? How quickly would we dismantle the other’s argument to score likes and retweets?  How quickly would we revert to our differences, and give in to our tribalist tendencies, which media so readily reinforces?  How quickly would I hate Ken?

I wanted to share this story because I think we should all approach one another like Ken.  Partisanship and identity politics will always take precedence over empathy and mutual understanding unless we work hard to understand one another.  It isn’t comfortable and it isn’t easy.  Striking up a random conversation takes courage, and to speak about anything beneath the surface with a stranger is completely taboo.  Before my oil change, I was probably mentally prepared to start a heated Facebook argument with someone two hundred miles away, knowing the screen would shield me from the humanness of the moron on the other side.  Instead, I left with hope, with a redefined faith in the genuine nature and potential of humanity.

I will not stop saying that Black Lives Matter; I will not waver in that belief, nor will I settle in the fight for justice and equity.  However, Ken taught me an invaluable lesson on how to approach difficult conversations in the absence of history or context.  He showed me how tribalism can come second if we’re willing to create a safe space, find commonalities, and listen to comprehend, not just to respond.  There’s no silver bullet for the plague of polarized vitriol in our rhetoric.  But I truly believe, if we can follow the lead of a stranger who I’ll likely never see again, we can begin to better understand one another on a level far deeper than waiting room small talk.

13 thoughts on “Ken

  1. Nan November 14, 2020 / 5:10 pm

    EXCELLENT, uplifting story. Thank you so much for sharing. It should definitely give each of us pause.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. betteroffwithtrump November 14, 2020 / 5:11 pm

    Heartfelt article, although I think you have the wrong impression of conservatives. We aren’t the get-in-your-face argumentative types. Maybe on Facebook or Twitter but not in person. For instance, I joined a volunteer committee for my HOA and I have to listen to three members riled up about a “Trump flag” while I remain silent. They wanted to send a violation notice to a homeowner to remove the flag prior to the election. I sat through several vile biased comments via zoom without saying a word. When it came to the vote to send a letter to the owners I said, “As long as you think it is legal, then fine.” They all got quiet and stopped the vote. They knew they were in the wrong but wanted to bully this neighbor.

    Another misconception is that we are against Blacks if we don’t chant Black Lives Matter. Not true. We aren’t racist but we believe the movement has been hijacked by far left organizations that aren’t even sending donation money to the underprivileged. They keep it to fund their protests. Also Twitter, Facebook, NPR, and NYT buried the news of Hunter’s incriminating laptop confiscated by the FBI. Doesn’t suppression of news bother you? It should. If you want just the truth, watch Newsmax or their app. Their ratings are going off the charts.

    Like

    • Nan November 14, 2020 / 5:20 pm

      Based on https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/, Newsmax is a “Questionable Source,” e.g., it exhibits one or more of the following: extreme bias, consistent promotion of propaganda/conspiracies, poor or no sourcing to credible information, a complete lack of transparency and/or is fake news.

      As in pretty much all facets of life, “truth” is whatever we want it to be.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. betteroffwithtrump November 14, 2020 / 5:31 pm

    So far it has reported truthfully, doesn’t cut off guests that it doesn’t agree with, doesn’t suppress the news, and hasn’t prematurely called the presidential race until all voter irregularities have been settled. There’s a reason their ratings are skyrocketing.

    Like

    • Raz November 16, 2020 / 2:54 am

      Friends, I have no idea how this conversation has divulged into substantiating news sources. I do appreciate your inputs of course, but I don’t want my original point to be lost here.
      My focus in this story is how interpersonal, safe, positive dialogue can be so much healthier than negativity and attacks. I don’t use the word “conservatives” at all; this is intentional. I think these labels play right into tribalism, and harbor an “us versus them” mentality. I’ve learned – am still learning – that we can do better!
      Thanks for your comments.

      Like

      • Nan November 16, 2020 / 4:02 pm

        RAZ, I apologize for my part as I can totally identify with this: I don’t want my original point to be lost here. This happens all too frequently on my own blog, but sometimes it’s difficult to rein in some of the “contributors.” 😕

        I do agree that political (especially) “tribalism” has become far too prevalent in our world today. Unfortunately, I think some people thrive on it.

        Have a good week!! Stay safe.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Raz November 17, 2020 / 12:52 pm

        Hey Nan, seriously no worries, friend! I’ve always appreciated and admired your perspectives and your ability to moderate and think about difficult subjects.
        Also, for what it’s worth, you were not the initiator of the profoundly unrelated tangents 😉 I think that goes without saying.
        Please stay safe also!
        Raz

        Liked by 1 person

      • betteroffwithtrump November 17, 2020 / 3:45 pm

        Actually she was. She had a go at my comment to YOU.

        Like

      • Raz November 17, 2020 / 6:44 pm

        In fairness, your comment to me had little, if any, relevance to my post. I made no mention of “conservatives.” I’m talking about people, and the beauty of respectful personal interactions that erode ideological differences. How you got from that to Hunter Biden’s laptop was a strawman argument masterpiece.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. betteroffwithtrump November 17, 2020 / 8:07 pm

    You’re real quick to label me when you don’t agree with my blogs. I deduced that the man you had this remarkable encounter with was conservative by your description of him (political foe). You can’t have it both ways. Conservative is not a bad label. I did go off your topic when I brought up suppression of news. I agree. Have a great Thanksgiving.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Raz November 17, 2020 / 8:21 pm

      You also! Stay safe.
      Raz

      Like

  5. Infidel753 November 19, 2020 / 12:43 am

    I understand the position expressed by your post. It is easy to take openness to an opposing ideology, and acceptance of individuals who hold that ideology, as being the more enlightened and “tolerant” position.

    The problem is that this assumes that the ideological differences are not all that fundamental, and that the opposing ideology is not inherently dangerous and malignant. In the case of an ideology which is based on intolerance of other groups of people and hostility to their rights and freedoms, acceptance and openness to the ideology and to people who espouse it means betraying the interests of those other groups who are targeted by the ideology’s bigotry.

    For another view on “finding commonalities” with the Kens of the world, you might find this essay worth reading.

    I accept no man as my equal who does not accept women as his equals. I seek no common ground with those who attack black Americans’ right to vote or gay people’s right to marry or women’s right to abortion, because my support for their rights takes precedence and cannot be compromised. They are persons, not “issues” to be compromised on to make nice with their (and my) enemies.

    If Ken were expressing explicitly Nazi beliefs, would you still be proud of finding common ground with him, and of dismissing the difference between your views and his as mere “tribalism”? I submit that the difference between that and the situation we find ourselves in is only one of degree. The fundamental principle involved is the same.

    It used to be said that a liberal is a man so broad-minded that he won’t take his own side in a fight. I am not that kind of liberal.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Raz November 19, 2020 / 2:25 am

      I think that I understand your position clearly; if so, I respect it fully. As you noted, the situation may be “only one of degree.” I suppose this is where I give Ken the benefit of the doubt. Our conversation was not predicated on him showing any blatant disregard for human dignity, nor of equity and justice. Were we to have conversed more fully, I might have found myself at an impasse in which I couldn’t rectify my beliefs with his. It’s certainly possible he harbors backwards, intolerant ideologies you’ve described above. I hope, to your point and that of Mr Marshall’s, that I would know and understand the cutoff point; I would hope that I would know when to close the door on someone unwilling to stand for the most basic of values. Mr Marshall’s essay is exceptional and highly thought-provoking in offering perspective on ‘disagreement’ versus fundamental beliefs in rights and dignity. That’s something I will read and re-read.
      Because of his compassionate demeanor, I believe that Ken was willing to listen to what I had to say – better yet, to hear what I had to say. I think that’s part of why I felt compelled by this dialogue. He made no effort to impart any belief system, policy, or ideology on me. Because of the openness and respectfulness of the dialogue, I did not feel it was at all wasted effort.
      If Ken expressed Nazi beliefs, or anything subsequent, I can’t imagine that he would have been open to such genuine dialogue. Of course, I wouldn’t take pride in finding shared ground there, but it seemed his genuine curiosity is what drew me to the safety of having such a dialogue. Maybe it was the brevity of the encounter, maybe my belief in his willingness to learn, and maybe it was just the good feeling of establishing a connection that amplified this moment for me.
      But, you’ve given me plenty to think about. For that moment in time, I felt that was the right person and the right conversation. But in future dialogue, it might well be, as you said, a matter of degree.
      Raz

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s