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Reunited States

Reunited States

Two years of isolation, disconnection, and toxic political divisiveness are enough to make anyone feel alienated—and enough to make the prospect of something as simple as a high school reunion feel like tap-dancing through a minefield.

Going into my two-years-delayed 40th high school reunion a couple of weeks back I was anxious about two things: being in a large-ish group during a pandemic that’s not over yet—thankfully the group wasn’t that large and our reunion took place mostly outside—and hanging out with old friends whom I care about deeply, but in some cases disagree with dramatically when it comes to politics.

I’m an optimist at heart—I want to believe that situations like this will work out for the best and everyone will behave, but I’m also keenly aware that, well, humans are gonna human. We’re flawed that way; it’s part of what makes us so unpredictable, and interesting, and fun, and impossible.

High school reunions are wildly fascinating in the way they highlight how people can grow and change over time in some ways, while staying absolutely the same in others. The rowdy jock grows into the level-headed businessperson who still exercises constantly; the mercurial life of the party RSVPs, then no-shows; the Romeos still brag and the flirts still flirt, even if it starts to seem more out of habit than conviction; and the unicorn who graduated with friends in every corner of our clique-ish class still looks out for all of us. (Oh: and the introvert observing it all still struggles to put words together in the moment.)

On the evening in question I ended up sharing a lot of laughs with three friends whose politics range from a little bit to much more conservative than mine. Other than a couple of mild in-passing comments, though, we steered clear of the day’s headlines and stuck to personal stuff. Besides trading memories and wisecracks, we shared talk of kids and grandkids, jobs and travels, injuries and maladies, aging parents and the tough decisions we face as caregivers.

And though we didn’t manage to solve a single one of society’s problems, I came away feeling better about the USA, and people in general, than I did going in. One particular buddy and I have probably canceled out one another’s votes in every election for the last 40 years. And yet we had a number of meaningful conversations across the span of the evening, sharing both raucous laughter and moments of introspection, connecting in a way that has become rare and precious over these pandemic years.

Disagreeing about politics does not negate our friendship; it’s a lesson that feels both prosaic and profound, simply because it represents our only real hope of detoxifying the American political conversation. Don’t get me wrong; it would be naïve to think that chatting over a beer at a high school reunion could change much. But treating politics as a zero-sum battle to be fought with Facebook memes is a dead end not just for the legislative process, but for American democracy itself.

We have no choice, really, but to continue to try to engage, to keep on tiptoeing through that minefield. There are certain red lines that cannot be crossed: I will never be silent about my core values for the sake of someone else’s comfort, and I will never stand by when confronted with beliefs or actions that harm others. But most of the time, with most people, that should leave enough room to have a conversation.

At our reunion, my friend and I took what feels like the most important step: we connected on a personal level. We paid respect to the fact that ultimately, we are all in this together. We were genuinely curious about each other’s lives, and the experiences that have shaped the people we have become. And these moments of connection are the essential atomic particles of the larger conversation that our nation so desperately needs to have. That conversation must be rooted in curiosity, empathy, respect, and yes, love for people who see the world differently than we do. To find common ground we must focus first not on changing minds, but on connecting hearts.

Comment (1)

  • Doris Pettersen

    Thanks, Jason. Unless we can, all of us, start talking to each other I fear for the future of our country. We each need to make a point of really listening to the media on the other side, not merely screaming our own viewpoint. Perhaps we will find ourselves able to meet somewhere in the middle. Am I overly hopeful??

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