I still vividly remember my first college class. It was Introduction to Western Philosophy taught by Dr. Robert Beard. The assigned readings were the Meno and Euthyphro, Socratic dialogues written by Plato. Before school started, my parents had suggested that I take every opportunity to attend professors’ office hours and get to know the professors, so at the end of the first class, I went up and introduced myself to Dr. Beard. After attending a few office hours, we struck up a friendship and for the rest of the semester, Dr. Beard and I went to lunch together after class.
Growing up as the son of a minister, my Christian faith was very important to me. My plan was to attend seminary after college and be a minister myself. Dr. Beard was an avowed atheist. Often during our lunches, he would tease me and tell me that I believed in fairies and talked to ghosts. He would tell me why my belief in God was silly, and why it was more rational to be an atheist. I patiently listened to his arguments. He also patiently listened while I countered his assertions. While that semester didn’t turn me into an atheist, it did one important thing – it developed a deep and lasting friendship with someone who held beliefs that were fundamentally different from mine. Dr. Beard and I remained friends over the years. He attended my college and law school graduations. He and his wife were guests at my wedding, and they attended a baby shower for my first child. They gave us the perfect gift. I thought of him fondly over the years every time I turned on the baby glow turtle night-light and said goodnight to my children. I loved Dr. Beard. I still do, even after his death.
Years later, as a lawyer in a big firm in South Florida, I joined the board of a group in Palm Beach County called Toward a More Perfect Union or “TMPU.” TMPU organized discussion groups to bring together people of diverse backgrounds to simply talk – think AA meetings focused on building better interracial understanding. In my group, I was the only white, heterosexual, evangelical Christian man. After a short time in the group, we started seeing each other not as labels, but as friends. I remember one group meeting in which one of the members was talking about “them,” the white evangelical Christians, and how they scared her. I reminded her that based on those labels, I was one of “them.” Did I scare her? TMPU created a rare opportunity to build real friendships with people outside of our circles. It gave everyone in the group the chance to expand our concept of “us” and who belonged in that category.
I have now lived outside of the United States for nearly a decade. I will yet again be celebrating the Fourth of July away from America. As I look on my homeland from afar, it seems that America is more divided than ever. Both sides of the aisle look with suspicion at the other side and speak harshly of them. It seems like everyone is consumed with self-righteous indignation. However, when I meet non-Americans abroad, they don’t know if I am a Democrat or a Republican. They often don’t even know what those labels mean and they don’t care. To them I am only an American.
One of my close friends in my expat home lived through the civil war in Lebanon. Other friends have fled Syria. As we see throughout history, no one wins when we start tearing each other apart. This is a truth that never changes. Shakespeare touched on this in Romeo and Juliet. At the end of the play, after Romeo and Juliet have both died tragically, Prince Escalus reflects upon how hate destroys:
See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate, That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love. And I for winking at your discords too Have lost a brace of kinsmen: all are punish’d.
We won’t escape destroying our own society if we continue to hate each other.
This Fourth of July, I think the most American thing we can do is to start talking again. It won’t happen by chance. You will have to make a concerted effort. Commit to building relationships with “them.” Get to know people outside of your group. Stop shouting, in person and on social media, and show love, even if “they” don’t. Listen more than you speak. Take a moment to reflect on what life looks like from someone else’s perspective. There really is no them. There is only us. Make today be the day that you start living that truth.