Monday, April 22, 2013

Building Bridges Across our Own Grand Canyons

We were thousands of miles away from home—no newspapers or magazines to tell us how bad it is. Poor TV reception. Mostly cut off from the Breaking news which always seems to be breaking-- we rode a river boat along with some ninety others. It was a rich week of European wonders, great food and fine companions. It was a respite. A real escape. A time to just be. We thought.

And so one evening at dinner beside us sat a retired military man and his wife. Across the table was a retired surgeon from the Mid-west. Dinner proceeded in a fine fashion until the military man began to mutter about Obamacare. How crazy it was. How this program, crammed down our throats, would bankrupt us all. From across the white tablecloth I could see the Surgeon bristle. He couldn’t keep quiet. “Are you crazy?” he asked. “If you saw all the people without insurance I saw you wouldn’t be saying that.” The military man took the bait. “Sounds like you are a Socialist? We’ve got a Hitler as our President. We can’t possibly go on like this.” The tension was heavy around that table. The Surgeon answered. “Hitler. Did you know that I am a Jew? Did you know I had grandparents that died in a concentration camp? I know a Hitler when I see one. You are a disgrace to our country.”  It went on until the military man’s wife nudged him in the ribs and he got quiet. The Surgeon finished his meal, put his napkin down and left.

There is no place to hide. The divisions that we thought we had left behind followed us all the way to France. Both Americans. Both deeply in love with their country. Red-faced they stared across the same chasm of their divides that we had grown accustomed to at home.

We’ve all been there—with relatives, with friends, with people at work. Poles apart on politics, religion, gun control, the President and just about every issue. Somehow we must reach across these enormous gulfs that divide us and build some bridges tentative though they may seem. 

The Surgeon stopped me the next day. “Did I go too far? I felt like I said too much—but I can never apologize to that man. Never. I feel bad but I can’t compromise my convictions.” I told him he had to let it go. “You have to do something”. And he reiterated, “I can’t apologize.” “At least,” I said, “go up and tell him kindly you’re hoping he’s having a good day. Talk a little about the weather or the trip. But keep it light and move on.”

The next day the Doctor cornered me again. “Well, I did what you said. It was hard. I didn’t apologize but I asked him how he was doing. And we talked just a minute. I don’t know if it helped—but I felt better as I walked away”.

Weeks later, back home we all watched the horror in Boston. The response was immediate. It didn’t matter what color you were, what politics you had, if you were religious or a pagan--people put their arms around one another. They cared for the bleeding and held the dying. They did what they could. And when things settled down there were prayers and candles and enormous compassion. This was America at its best. This was the same feeling I had after 9/11 when kindness seemed to be everywhere. But it didn’t last. We simply picked up our old weapons and started all over again.

Martin Luther King told us, “Either we must learn to live together as brothers and sisters or we will perish together as fools.” The Grand Canyons of our divides have got to close. And you and I must build the bridges.

(This blog piece can also be found On Line at The Birmingham News, the Mobile Press.Register and the Huntsville Times. The word were printed in The Greenville News,  (SC), 4/29/13)

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