I did not expect this to be the most life-changing part of my semester in Washington DC.
When I first left, I thought the biggest impact would be academic–the Smithsonian, Library of Congress, Museum volunteering. Either that, or my health would improve with the balance and space. Or maybe I would meet a tall, dark, handsome American man and run away to Hawaii with a green card.
There was an academic impact, of course. A huge one. And, yes, my spiritual, emotional and physical health are in decent form. I am also currently acquainted with many tall/dark/handsome American menfolk (‘sup, gents?), though I certainly won’t be marrying into a green card anytime soon.
But none of these things are at the top of my report back to Canada. Instead, I have been pouring out stories and joy regarding one overwhelming, unexpected gift: While in DC, I became close, close friends with people who I disagree with on almost everything.
Keep in mind, these weren’t just any people with differing opinions. These were people I genuinely liked. A lot. They were funny, smart, and kind. We all really liked music. We tried new foods, watched interesting documentaries, and reacted to the news. We even lived together. We ate dinner together, every single night.
So I couldn’t look down on them. I couldn’t even consider it. And when you can’t look down on someone who fundamentally disagrees with you, when you’re busy breaking bread, sharing your days, laughing about the weather…well.
Welcome to the most profound living situation I have ever had.
I met my first Bible Belt Republican friend soon after moving to DC. We were watching TV. She had an awesome Southern accent. At first, we chatted politely about football, and cheese dip, and New York City–safe topics.
“So, what’s it like in Mississippi?” I asked.
“Well, you know, I’m from a small town, so we all get around in horses and buggies…”
“….no.” She laughed. I gritted my teeth and swallowed embarrassment. Yikes. “What about Canada? Aren’t y’all, like, socialist?”
I laughed. She laughed. And just like that, any walls between us tumbled down.
She was fascinated, in every sense of the word, when I mentioned I was pro-choice. (I know, I know. When you first meet a self-proclaimed Conservative from Mississippi, talking about abortion is dangerous business. But we went there.) She wanted to know more. Her curiosity fueled my curiosity, and we talked. We didn’t argue–we debated gently, very gently, but we never argued. We laughed at nuance, we self-deprecated, we trusted each other. And we liked each other. Before the conversation, and after the conversation.
To recap: Left-wing Canadian meets Bible Belt Republican. Discusses controversial political issues for over an hour. Walks away with a new friend.
We’re still friends. We grabbed coffee before I left town, and we chatted away about personal things, travel, jobs…and, you know, marriage equality. We had both attended a rally on the subject earlier that month. I had been a participant; She was working as a Conservative news journalist. We drained our drinks, played with ideas, and moved on to discussing our hometowns.
I miss her. I do.
More than that, though, I miss the girls I saw every. single. day. I lived at a downtown Christian Woman’s Home. The residence housed many girls with Bible College backgrounds, Conservative upbringings, Heritage Foundation affiliations, Baptist church memberships, and/or a “Raised Republican” shirt.
They questioned me constantly. And I questioned them. Gun control, birth control, abortion (that one took three hours), pornography, drug laws, marriage equality, feminism, and a whole lotta theology. We really never knew what the other person believed, so we could never make assumptions. Our backgrounds were just too different. In almost every conversation, I had to assume the person I was talking to disagreed with me. And in almost every conversation, I was hungry to find out why.
This might sound frustrating, but it wasn’t frustrating with them. It was fun. It was loving and accountable and we laughed a lot.
What it came down to was this: We questioned each others’ perceptions and ideas, but we never questioned each others’ integrity. We debated (gently, gently), but we never sought to change the other person’s mind.
Even finding out that this was possible changed my life.
It’s easy to get stuck in a cycle of talking to people who agree with you, and carelessly demeaning those who don’t. But the problem with people who share a similar perspective is that they can assume that you agree with them on everything. So you start to. You pat each other on the back, you make assumptions, you submit to ideologies.
I know I’ve been guilty of this.
In DC, things got more interesting. Things got more grey. We could bend and defend where needed; we built compassion, we got offended, we saw irony. These are all important things, I promise.
Here’s a great TED Talk that discusses the “filter bubbles” keeping us from diverse opinions online:
When I first saw this video, it didn’t bother me much. But that was before DC. Now, it scares me pretty desperately. Diverse opinions matter. Understanding where people are coming from matters.
We care a lot about “Freedom of Speech,” which is great, but it’s easy to forget that with Freedom of Speech comes the Freedom to Listen.
We have the freedom to choose who and what we expose ourselves to. It really is up to us. If we want, we can only hang out with people who echo our own sentiments. We can read only one column, we can confine ourselves to a clearly biased news network, we can spit on people protesting something with which we disagree. We can restrict our friendships to our own parties or churches.
But man, that seems like an awful waste of our Freedom to Listen. Just like only talking with people “on your side” of an issue is an awful waste of your Freedom of Speech.
We may not have time to give everyone a soapbox second. And perhaps we should hold fundamental values. But we should also always have time for friendship, for talking to people, for humanizing those outside of our own bubble. And we should always be willing to disagree, learn…and to laugh about it.