My friends Len and Libby Traubman, who have led a Palestinian/Jewish Living Room Dialog Group for decades, taught me that the shortest distance between two people is a story. The difference between a friend and an enemy is a story. Deeply listening to someone’s story and sharing your own can break down the tallest barriers.
There’s another side of that coin though. The longest distance between two people, and the difference between an enemy and a friend, can be an opinion.
We all have opinions, some deeply held, and for the life of us we can’t figure out how anyone could have a completely opposite opinion without that person being deeply flawed, ignorant, misled, or, using one of my mother-in-law’s favorite words ... stupid. If only we could tell them the facts, undo the misleading, correct their flaws, or overcome their ignorance, they would see that we are right. Nope.
My husband is an elder in the Presbyterian Church. The denomination fought for years over whether LGBTQ people should be ordained. Opinions were deeply rooted and seemed impossible to overcome. In the governing body that encompasses churches from Monterey through Palo Alto, before major votes on initiatives to include or exclude LGBTQ people, leaders organized listening sessions. Small groups of people shared their stories, revealing why this issue was important to them, how it affected their lives. Deep listening, tears, laughter and, yes, sometimes anger, were all experienced in those circles. Some opinions softened, some completely changed, some didn’t budge. Eventually inclusion won the day.
Today, the chasms between Americans over so many issues seem insurmountable. Immigration, gun safety, abortion, LGBTQ rights, charter schools, building heights, Israel/Palestine, taxes, even choices of news channels, all seem to divide us. The Daily Journal’s opinion pages reflect these differences. Our op-eds, letters to the editor and online comments reflect our differences, sometimes expressed as though the person with whom we are disagreeing is foolish, dangerous or both. Rarely in our discourse do we reveal why a particular issue is so important to us or deeply share our own stories. Granted, the brevity required of a letter to the editor, or even a column like this one, doesn’t leave much room for our stories, but we can at least share small insights into what caused our fingers to flash across our keyboards and fire off a missive. And, we can also start by assuming that the person with the opposite opinion is a good person, with a story that informs his or her thinking, a story which might actually affect our own thoughts on the matter.
I have a friend who believes that torture is effective and should be legal in certain circumstances. I disagree. Here’s my story.
A few years after I left the U.S. Air Force I sat on the floor of a home in El Salvador, candlelight flickering the only light in the room, the heat oppressive, as a husband and wife talked about the war. “Soldiers burst into our house and raped me.” She shared the excruciating details of her ordeal. “They took me away afterward,” her husband said, “and they beat me over and over again and tortured me. I could hear an American, telling the others what to ask me, and when I didn’t answer the way they wanted, they beat me again.”
Hearing their stories broke my heart, and I couldn’t believe that people who served in the U.S. armed forces at the same time as I had served, having been trained that torture was illegal, could have participated in torture. A year later though, I participated in a panel discussion and the person who spoke just before me shared his story. He had been an American soldier, serving in Central America and had supervised the torture of Salvadorans. He was devoting his life to undoing the damage he felt he had done. A few years later, I was on another panel that included a former interrogator. He said that torture was ineffective and didn’t work. Most of the time those who were tortured would say anything, in the end, to stop the pain. By the time most people who were tortured broke, though, any information they might have had was worthless.
My story, their stories, shape my opinion. We have a sign outside our church (First Presbyterian Church Palo Alto) that says “Torture Is Always Wrong.” That’s an opinion, but it comes from a group of people inside with very powerful stories.
Right now someone is reading this and having a visceral reaction. Put down the mouse. Stop. Before you type, ask yourself which of your life stories is crying out to be told. Find someone to listen and tell it.
Craig Wiesner is co-owner of Reach And Teach Books Toys and Gifts on 25th Avenue in San Mateo. He shares his shop and his home with his husband Derrick and their dog Holly.