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.