I’d like to begin this week’s column with a story of something miraculous that happened to me recently.
Over Easter weekend, I went back home to Toms River. There, I had lunch with a friend, whom I’ll call Eddy, that I had not seen since high school. I loved Eddy dearly, and still do. We both went to public high school, but attended a private Catholic school from kindergarten through eighth grade, and we bonded over our shared experiences.
We met at a local diner and discussed high school, our families, our jobs and our college experiences. Then, the conversation shifted to religion. I’m a devout Catholic, and have been all my life. So has Eddy, or so I thought. He took a long pull from his water and stared at the table, as if preparing to say something. Thinking nothing of it, I sat and stared, waiting for him to finish. I’d had a particularly hefty Rueben, so I was ready to roll over and take a nap right there in that booth.
I was not ready, however, for Eddy to place his drink down, look me dead in the face and tell me that he had joined The Satanic Temple of Albany, New York. I thought he was joking until he showed me his amulet and membership card.
I was taken aback, to say the least. I, too, took a long pull from my drink as I thought of what I should say next. What on earth could a Catholic and a Satanist possibly talk about on equal footing? My racing mind was stopped short as I ran out of water in my glass and was brought back to reality.
So, I looked back up at Eddy, wearing his amulet and gingerly tucking his card back into his wallet. And I, a devout Catholic, asked him everything I could think to ask about the Satanic Temple. And Eddy answered everything that I asked him.
We sat in that booth for almost two hours talking about religion, politics and everything we could possibly disagree on, asking and answering questions until we were practically blue in the face. And though he did not sway my personal beliefs with his words, I learned more about Eddy, and about myself, in that diner booth than I had in quite some time.
Having a meaningful discussion with your intellectual opposite is one of the most difficult things in the world. Why? Because in order to understand and appreciate anything that your opposite has to say, you need to forget that they’re your opposite.
More than that, you need to accept that what they have to say could potentially make more sense — or make a greater point — than you. And the reason it’s so scary and difficult is because we, as humans, hate to be wrong. Too often we like to think that we have it all figured out, and that because we’re right, everyone else must be wrong. That’s why when people discuss politics or religion, fights often break out.
Fights break out between people who, too scared to think about the validity of what they believe, just as quickly leap to condemn the beliefs of others. The image of a scholarly debate inevitably erupting into a chaotic, hair-pulling shouting match is so common today that many of us have, understandably, lost faith in the ability of humans to sit down and have a civil conversation regarding our differing opinions.
In my story about Eddy, I made it clear that we were ideologically opposed — Catholic and Satanist. Regardless of what you know about either of those words, I’ll bet money that an image springs to your mind of mortal enemies.
The same thing can be said about Republicans and Democrats, Liberals and Conservatives, Marxists and Capitalists, Nationalists and Globalists. Whichever of these labels we ascribe too, we risk the close-minded trap of condemning the validity of others, simply because they believe differently.
In the worst cases, some people need not say two words to a person before they discredit them entirely. All they need to see is a backpack pin or article of clothing, and, instantly, they think they know everything about that person.
That kind of ideological profiling is wrong, ignorant and even dangerous, because it shrinks the individual who is a unique, beautiful and infinitely complex vessel of ideas, into a dispensable, predictable strawman seen on the tabloid news.
We have no hope of learning from — or understanding — what such people have to say, because we think that nothing a Conservative has to say holds any water, or that anything a Liberal believes must be wrong.
And our words fall on deaf ears when others profile us the same way.
Why would I, a devout Catholic, listen to anything a Satanist has to say? Simply put: I don’t know everything that a Satanist does. And there’s no shame in asking. I might not be converted, but that’s not the idea. Because Eddy is more than a Satanist, and people are more than whatever label you may think defines them. Once you realize that, you become curious. And once you become curious, the real conversation can start.
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