At the Thanksgiving table there were eleven people crammed into a space for eight. The conversation was spirited, opinionated and loud. At the head of the table sat Bobby, an elderly man in poor health, a walker at his side. Often his voice could be heard above the din, and I caught words like “Israel”, “Washington” and “Muslims”. Rolling my eyes to myself, I dismissed him as another conservative, closed-minded old man, good for not much more than espousing his bigoted beliefs. Without hearing his words in context of any sort, not even a complete sentence, I took this leap, assuming the worst about him. Because, you know, the Greatest Generation, while I respect them tremendously for what they lived through as young people (the Depression, WWII, the Korean War) and how they made do in a way my generation will never understand, they display a complete lack of perspective. They don’t contribute anything worthwhile. Yep, I’m the open-minded one.
After dinner, Bobby remained in his chair at the table, where he was going on to an audience of one, a man in his early twenties. I popped into the dining room to grab something I’d left, just as Bobby launched into a tirade, “I love the look of the ocean, I love the mountains, I love gardens, I love flowers.” A flower lover myself (I have a whole bouquet tattooed on my back) I paused. “I love flowers, too.” I said. He looked up at me, then back at the young man. “I also love seeing youth in full bloom.” he exclaimed, gesturing at us. I felt drawn in, realizing Bobby was listing all the positives in his life, and sat right down to hear more. It turned out the young man was asking Bobby about his quality of life since his recent stroke. Bobby continued his list which included music of all kinds (his complete hearing loss in one ear not limiting his enjoyment in the least), dance in all forms such as ballroom and ballet, reading literature and poetry, spending time with friends, laughter, taking pleasure in what was left of each his senses, the smell of tobacco, touch, taste. His eyes were bright, fixed on us, his deep baritone voice wavering a bit, his passion evident. “Life is worth living.”
He explained that he understood his role in damaging the world for future generations. “I played a role in the global warming crisis, and it’s my responsibility to fix it. There’s little I can do in my state, but I must do what little I can.” He went on, “I’m angry at Washington, but not as angry as I was from 2000-2008.” So much for my perception of the elderly raging conservative.
The young man leaned forward, asking Bobby to tell us about his military career and an estimate of how many people he killed. Bobby demurred. “I went to war and fought because it was my job at the time, to serve my country. I do not look back on the people I hurt and killed with pride. They had just as much of a right to live as I.” Whoa. I had expected him to launch into some long-winded story of a particularly memorable battle. “In fact”, he continued, “I don’t care for the terrible things people in this country say about Muslims. I spent two years living in the Middle East and I met some beautiful people. All ethnicities contribute to society. There is no single group that has the corner market on creating culture, art or innovation.” He began to quote Shakespeare, urging us to understand the existential struggle of humanity. Bobby held my gaze with his watery blue eyes, speaking the words of Hamlet’s opening soliloquy. I felt my biases crumble to dust, my assumption that Bobby and his ilk lack perspective blown to bits. I was overwhelmed, and needed a moment of private admonition with myself for being hopelessly rigid in my beliefs, before I could absorb more of Bobby’s wisdom, so freely given.
I have come to cherish the moments my biases are exposed and challenged. It’s a marvelous learning opportunity, and it allows me a more nuanced understanding of the world, and of people. And since people are a fierce extrovert’s most precious energy resource, best to strive for openness and inclusion, lest we wither and die from alienation. It is not in my best interest to push people away for lack of comprehension. I cannot risk intolerance, which I deplore in others. And yet there I was on Thanksgiving, categorizing a whole group on sight of one member, presuming the worst, and rejecting him on the basis of my own stereotypes. Ugh. I want so much to be better than that. I thought I was better than that. I realized I had better get back over to Bobby for some more schooling before calling it a night.
Bobby was set up in the living room at this point and I went over, extending my hand, which he grasped firmly. I covered his hand with both of mine, standing very near, speaking into his undamaged ear. I thanked him for sharing his perspective with me with such generosity. I told him how much the Shakespeare discussion had resonated with me, having studied English in college. It turned out he had also majored in English. Common ground presented itself, over and over, as it will, if we search for it together. He looked deeply into my eyes, and I returned his gaze. His lips worked, as he revealed his final pearl of wisdom for the evening. “You must always live inside yourself, understanding who you are and your place in the world. With a firm self-understanding and positioning, you will relate to others more freely and draw them to you. From there you will reach out and do the most good.”
I listened closely, eager to absorb anything and everything he wanted to tell me, his perspective based on decades of experience invaluable to me, my own utterly limited in comparison. I benefitted, I was changed. There’s hope for the younger generation yet.