I wrote this story a few years back. Over the last few months as I have been trying to figure out what I might do to help make things better in this world I am living in, this memory has come back to me repeatedly. I haven’t lived through such politically and socially rancorous, dangerous and divisive times since the 1960’s and 70‘s. I have been struggling to figure out what I personally can do about it. What can I do for my affected friends, neighbors, loved ones, my world and most selfishly for my grandchildren and others who are unable to protect themselves. Writing about my Harold experience is one of those things I can do. So, here is the story as it happened.
We were going to spend some time with a relative, Harold and his wife. While it would be good to see them, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to 72 hours of political indoctrination and commentary; a TV set that was always on and where only one “Fair and Balanced” TV channel was permitted to be viewed. A place where I felt I needed to be careful to not mention some taboo topic that might provoke “an incident”.
As I was thinking about how I was going to manage the “opportunity” this visit was to provide, I thought, “You know, I bet that Harold’s world is organized in his mind in such a way that everything he says, does and believes makes logical, perfect sense to him.” (As an aside, his wife’s world view was 180 degrees from his, and aligned with my thinking or my world view, which makes her a ‘good’ person and obviously good friend material, right? I often say that my friends are the people who share the same mythical beliefs, delusions and distortions about life and how it works, that I do. Today that is called sharing the same “bubble” or living in the same silo). His behaviors (what magazines and newspapers he reads or won’t, what TV shows/networks he watches or won’t, what radio stations/networks he listens to or won’t, what politicians he believes are doing a great job or not, what conspiracy theories he does/doesn’t have faith in, who the good/bad guys are, etc.) create a world of his making. As logical and true for him as mine are to me. In that moment, I realized I am just like Harold. I have organized my world and justify my behaviors and biases the same way he had.
I thought “Hey, instead of wrestling with this guy for 72 hours, trying to point out the flaws in his way of viewing the world and trying to convince him my view is more valid, or just holding my breath for three days; what about going and pretending I was an alien who had just landed on earth and who’s task is collecting information about life on this planet, and since it is all news to me (in that role) I would have no judgments about what I hear?”
Now, I started getting excited about seeing Harold. I could hardly wait to get there to start “learning”. Could I pull this off? As I remember it, when I told my bride about my plan she came close to rolling her eyes….
It didn’t take long for my education to begin. After picking us up from the airport, stopping by for some lunch and arriving home, Harold plopped himself down on the sofa, saying “I don’t want to be impolite but this is my favorite program and I’d really like to watch it, I hope you don’t mind”.
“Alright, I thought”, mentally rubbing my hands in anticipation, much like a brain surgeon who can’t wait to peek inside the guy’s noggin as he is stretched out on the gurney. In my best Columbo investigative spirit (for those of you who don’t remember the TV show, Columbo was a police detective who always found his guilty man or woman by pretending to be stupid, something I don’t have to try too hard to do) I said, “Tell me what makes this your favorite program”. At first Harold was a bit reluctant; a bit defensive, probably thinking I was going to use whatever snippet of information he gave me to attack him; tell him how wrong he was, like, I would guess he had been treated before. Part of the commentary on this show was about the controversial choices the President and his minions had recently made. I asked Harold how he felt about that. He told me. I didn’t make any comments of my own about what I thought, and when I was tempted to I remembered my promise to myself that I was there to learn that weekend, not preach, instruct, correct, convert, or defend. I am not saying that I wasn’t thinking, as he began talking to me at times throughout the weekend, “You’ve got to be $%&*(@+I^* me. But I could let that thought go each time it came, remind myself that I was just supposed to collect data, not judge it, and allow him to make his case.
As the weekend progressed, I learned more and more about Harold and his story. The conversations got deeper and deeper. What I came to understand was HOW Harold had arrived at his beliefs. When I heard his story, I could easily imagine that had I lived his experiences, I might have needed to organize my beliefs and life the very same way he had. I started looking more and more forward to these conversations as the weekend progressed. I was on full receiver mode.
He pulled out pictures of the father he never met. (Harold’s father was killed in Russia during WWII. Since he was a German officer, he could have come home right away to meet his newly born son, but decided to stay a couple extra weeks at the front, so that his time home could be expanded, and he was killed during that time). So, as he saw it, a dictator, Hitler, had killed his father. He showed me a piece of barbed wire fence, known as the Berlin wall, that forever separated him from family members one day. A dictator, Stalin, had scattered his family. Back then those who might have done something to stop such atrocities had sat on their hands and just watched as all this happened. Harold’s take was that if the dictators had been stopped earlier, Harold would have had a father and a family. That’s how he saw it. So, when contemporary dictators were being identified (by some of the political leaders in our country), Harold was quite understandably, based on his very personal experience, in favor of getting rid of them preemptively, and anyone who didn’t understand what was at stake was naive, and we would all be living a repeat of what he had experienced and be personally culpable.
It turned out to be a great weekend. I found the experience of listening to Harold to be totally fascinating. His wife said at one point, “He has said things to you I never knew”. I felt like I walked away from that weekend with an incredible gift. A peek at what the world looked like through someone else’s eyes. Haroldn’s world and the way he had it organized made as much sense and was just as consistent for him as my world and the way I had organized it was to me.
I had just been given an opportunity to see the world from another point of view simply by keeping my mouth shut and listening. I found myself understanding more, judging less and walking away with the awareness (and new goal for myself) that I need to remember that everyone organizes their world in the way that they need to, to have life make sense, to feel freedom from fear, to answer the unanswerable questions, and it is all based on their very own life experiences.
My new mantra? “Everyone’s world view makes as much sense to them, as mine does to me. If I can’t see or understand it, I am not listening well enough.” Now I would like to report that I have reached the state of mental wellness that I never get hooked by someone’s behavior or beliefs. That I never argue, defend, preach, try to change someone else’s view of the world as they see it. Sometimes, I can’t maintain enough emotional distance. I have a horse in the race. I am working on that. Especially in these times with so much seemingly at stake.
Some of you may be wondering if Harold ever asked me about how I saw things. Nope. I didn’t have that on my agenda, so I wasn’t disappointed. Some of you may be wondering how things have been between Harold and I since that weekend. A few weeks later when his wife was talking to mine, he asked his wife to tell me that he loved me. LOVED ME? He wasn’t one to say that. He loved me because I listened. Wow. I never saw Harold again. He is now gone from my life. He died suddenly one morning. His wife told me that he had often talked about our “special weekend” together.
An unexpected gift, a beautiful gift, a gift of love, just because I chose to listen? So, what I am reminded of is that everyone has a story. A story that if I can listen to it, will make sense and help me understand them. If we are ever going to change the stalemate of the current situation someone needs to start listening. And it needs to start with me. I like the quote that I saw several years ago by Mary Lou Casey. She suggests that “What people need most is a good listening to.”
What would happen if like Harold, I listened to people who held a different world view; I mean really listen. Would they, like Harold begin to be able to feel love towards and from me? Would that change things? I believe so.
So, here’s my proposal. Listen to someone who is different than you. Really listen. Let me know what you experience. Now’s the time we can be part of the solution to our current mess.