I was on my way out to go fishing last Sunday morning while visiting my grandparents in Western Maryland (yeah, that's right, I'm getting back in touch with my hunting and fishing roots, maybe I'll tell you more about it sometime). Anyway, I was on my way out to hopefully catch some fish when I realized I needed to fill up the tank with gas. This actually wound up being a good thing because the gas station I stopped at also sold night crawlers, which were going to be important to catch bass from the lake.
As I pulled into the gas station, I realized this was the place I had previously referred to as "the crazy gas station". The first thing you see as you're pulling in is a sign that effectively encourages you to repent of your sins so you don't burn in hell. I'm sure this was intended with the most loving heart because the person who put the sign up just really doesn't want to see people in hell, but it always bothered me nonetheless. As I was gassing up, I looked around and noticed a few other signs, painted with the same crude stencils and the same color paint. Together, they painted a picture of a gun-totin', bible-believing, beer-drinking, Jesus-praying, conservative fanatic with a hatred for the government. One of the signs that particularly caught my attention called a local judge a crook because he had apparently stolen this man's property and made it public land. My first instinct was to think that there was a perfectly logical explanation as to why this man's property was declared public land and the man was probably leaving out a big part of the story. But then I checked myself. I first found it interesting that I immediately assumed that the judge, on the side of the law, must have been the more reasonable party and was likely in the right. I guess that's based on the view of authority I have because of the way I was raised. But what if I was raised to distrust authority? Or if I had a really bad experience with authority, like I lost rights to my private land by a legal technicality? Well, then, I would probably feel much like whoever was responsible for all these signs.
Most of all, I found it interesting and rather disappointing that I immediately got such a clear picture of and made so many judgements about the owner of these signs. I knew nothing about this person. I didn't even know if it was a man.
I finished gassing up and went inside to buy an energy drink (I know, I know, I just can't help myself sometimes) and night crawlers. I walked up to the counter and stood there for a minute before anyone came to help me (it was well before sunrise). A guy finally came around the corner and I jumped right back into stereotype judgement day. The guy had a mullet, tattooed fingers, and a sleeveless button-up shirt. He walked up gruffly, as I had expected, didn't say much and right up until I paid was exactly as I had expected. But then he surprised me.
"You check them night crawlers to make sure they's alive?"
"No." I responded. "I didn't even think about it".
"Yeah, just pop the top off there and make sure they's moving around. Yep, you're good. Good luck buddy, have fun!"
He smiled a toothy smile and walked away from the counter to the back. I headed back to my car.
I don't know why, but I was so stunned by that interaction. I grew up with people just like this so I should not have been surprised. But I've been away from that culture for so long that I had forgotten some things. I can only assume that he sized me up at some point just like I did him and made some snap judgements about me. City kid up for the weekend trying to get some fish. Better make sure he at least has live bait to give him a fighting chance. So he broke the ice, he reached across he aisle. He found our common ground. There are probably very few things upon which this man and I would agree, but at the end of the day we'd each want the other to have a fighting chance at catching a large-mouth bass. And that's saying something.
I continued to think about this as I went to the lake, got set up, and watched a beaver working on his house as the sun rose over the far ridge. There were probably a lot of things I had in common with that man. If you dug down beneath the political and religious differences (which are really just all about perception anyway; but more on that later) you'd probably find some very similar core desires that had simply found very different ways of expressing themselves. We probably both like the idea of living off the land, we both love our families and want to keep them safe from harm, we both enjoy the outdoors, we want a space to call our own that we can protect, and we want to feel like men. In fact, we had probably both had early morning experiences on the lake similar to the one I was having then. We were probably thinking about different things and valuing the experience in different ways but not many people get those amazing early morning on the lake experiences. Something happens in those moments.
The point is that ideologically this man and I could probably be no more different. And yet we can still find common ground. So perhaps there is hope in this world yet.
I watch the news and read about playtime in congress, political stunts that have nothing to do with the true good of the country, endless conflicts in the middle east; there are so many reasons to feel hopeless. And scared. And tired. Most of all, tired. And when I'm tired it is so easy to stop challenging myself to think about things and just surround myself with friends who think like me to avoid being challenged. And from there it's just so damn easy to blame other groups of people (conservatives, liberals, the rich, the poor, Jews, Muslims, Christians, immigrants, white males; take your pick!) We get so entrenched in our thinking to the point that we can't even talk about politics with people who think differently than we do.
No wonder Congress can't get anything done.
But then, every so often, someone reaches across the aisle and does something amazing. They have have a human interaction with someone with whom they disagree on almost everything. But somehow they find common ground. And then, if you're really lucky, they figure out that the other person is really not that unreasonable. In fact, they want very similar things but have some different ideas on the best way to get there.
I wasn't the one to reach across the divide this time. But I'm glad mullet-man did. And I won't miss an opportunity to do so in the future. I cannot sit back and wait for change to come from somewhere else. Change happens when people decide that change is necessary and they begin to live the change they want to see.
We're not that different, you and I. Let's find a way to bridge this great divide.