Friday, April 9, 2010

Our Different Journeys: Common Good, Separate Roads

Today - Friday, April 9, 2010 - is a day that brought the issue of abortion back to the center of American political discussion. It's tempting to focus on abortion, but it was promised that this second post would focus on the different journeys human beings take. Perhaps some kind of synthesis can be achieved, but I intend to keep (most of) the focus on the differences in various human lives.

One event that (not immediately, but eventually) enabled me to transcend my one-minded, one-sided political worldviews came in my senior year at Seattle University. My English professor - whose views were quite liberal - showed our class a video on the history of the Civil Rights Movement. In a post-video discussion, the professor (Sharon Cumberland by name) made the oh-so-essential point that we should not look upon civil rights opponents from the 1950s as somehow inferior or inherently bad people. She went even further and said that we cannot use present-day lenses to view the appreciably distant past.

The principle at work in Professor Cumberland's remarks was this: What if I myself had been born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1940? What if I myself had been born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1938? Would I have been able to grow up and easily acquire a pro-civil rights set of viewpoints? Almost certainly not. This realization took many years to fully penetrate my consciousness, but over years of disagreement with others, the weight of Cumberland's guidance began to sink in.

The most difficult element of politics is simply this: People are different. More precisely, people's experiences are different. We know this, actually, but it gets lost in the heat of political combat. To be more exact, we are aware of differences, but find it hard (and understandably so) to wrap our minds around the extent to which we occupy separate sides (or corners) of various issues and identities.

It's not just a matter of when or where you're born, though those two facts certainly shape much of a person's existence right then and there.

What kinds of parents did a person have? Good parents? Ideologically fervent parents (in either direction)? What occupations did they have? How materialistic were they? What baggage or inspiration did parents carry with them in life? How did one's parents handle their own successes and shortcomings? How stable was the marriage of one's parents? Did the examples set by one's parents create divisions or affirm originally held views? Did parents exhibit hypocrisy or consistency? Did they nourish? Did they discipline? Did they coddle or enable? Did they fail to praise or communicate their love?

These and other questions capture only a small piece of the larger complexity that defines any person's upbringing, and the web of emotional relationships that colors it. We can ask numerous questions about every other aspect of a person's upbringing as well.

What kind of neighbors existed in the community?

What kind of teachers and non-parental role models - of both genders - existed?

What kind of churches and pastors/rabbis/imams existed in one's early years?

What was the economic condition associated with one's childhood and adolescence?

How much of a chance did you have to play and run free as a child?

Was original, independent, critical thinking encouraged, or did your parents push a particular line of thought, and/or a specific line of work, and/or a specific field of study?

And then there are questions pertaining to a given time in human history.

One such question would be this: Did you grow up in a part of the United States or the world where one issue (or one subset of issues) acquired paramount importance at a given point in time?

Did your household and neighborhood face the need to confront a specific problem which did not exist five or 10 years earlier?

Did your church or synagogue or mosque have to deal with time-specific challenges, notable accidents, systemic wrongs, internal controversies, or other issues which attained a degree of centrality not found in many other cities, states, provinces, or regions?

Then consider the course of human events and how they would have affected a human life.

If you were 3 years old when a seminal, life-altering moment became part of human history (September 11, Pearl Harbor, The Six Day War, The JFK assassination, Watergate, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Martin Luther King assassination, the Great Depression), the intellectual and emotional impact of the event would have been quite different from the ways in which a 13-year-old would have been affected. A 13-year-old person would have felt such events differently from 23-year-olds, 33-year-olds, 43-year-olds, and so on.

These lists might seem tiresome, but again, they're laid out in full so that the immensity of human experiences - and more precisely, their variances - becomes that much more apparent.

If your mom stuffed envelopes for Margaret Sanger or Betty Friedan, or if you grew up in a liberal enclave in Greenwich Village in 1965, your outlook on life would be different from that of a rancher who grew up in Wyoming in 1982. The outlook of an 18-year-old boy in Haight-Ashbury in 1967 San Francisco would have been quite different from the outlook of an 18-year-old girl in a staunchly old-school Catholic family in 1951 Nebraska. Internationally, the worldview of my father - who lived in his native Czechoslovakia during the Nazi occupation - is irretrievably different from the outlook of a Czech who grew up after the fall of the Berlin Wall and knew nothing of Nazi or Communist oppression. The outlook of a 20-year-old girl in 1979 Sweden would differ greatly from the outlook of a 20-year-old girl - if she even got to live at all - in 1979 Cambodia.

And so on, and so on, and so on.

People are different, yes, but we are different not just because of our personalities. We are different because we are molded by millions and millions of different events, facts, circumstances and turning points that combined in just such a way that we forged certain viewpoints as a response. If the order of events had been altered - in other words, if we knew what we did at 17 when a traumatic event happened at age 13 - we might have been able to travel a different life path.

Alas (or fortunately!), we're only given one path.

Perhaps something will happen in the next six months that, due to our own awareness and education, we will understand in a way that a contemporary with a vastly different background would interpret in a manner foreign to us.

Such is the endless complexity of one human life as it unfolds. Magnify this by 6.4 billion (and growing), and my goodness, no wonder it's hard to forge a broad bipartisan consensus on almost any issue.

Profound differences on abortion are sad and lamentable, especially to the extent that the American Left - with so many good things to say on so many issues - has not been able to see how damaging and hurtful its position really is. I don't defend the Left on abortion, but what can be said is that it's not surprising that we have the culture-clash that we do.

For almost 50 years since The Feminine Mystique was printed, America has had to confront wrenching and not-easily-resolved issues of gender, work equality, child rearing, household stability, and human identity that - unfortunately but undeniably - have come to affect the issue of abortion as well.

Perhaps if women had been given the right to vote several decades earlier, the women's liberation movement - which has helped women attain some measure of workplace equality - would not have felt the need to agitate for abortion rights in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Heck, perhaps there wouldn't have been a women's liberation movement in that time period if Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had broken through barriers much earlier than they ultimately did.

The point of this is not to render a finite verdict on the issue of abortion or on the history of feminist political movements in America; the point is to show that various confluences of events, multiple convergences of people and passions, created a specific trajectory that encompassed various human lives. A free-living girl in Los Angeles in 1973 probably viewed Roe v. Wade differently from the way in which Anita Bryant's children viewed the matter at the time. (Those youngsters may well have switched their views in subsequent years due to different progressions of events; who knows?)

The only bottom line I wish to promote (I generally don't like to insist on one reading or one takeaway from a multifaceted and nuanced narrative) is this: Before perceiving a specific meaning in response to a political or ideological opponent, try to ask one fundamental question that can create a climate of mutual respect - not agreement, not synchronicity, but merely respect.

The question is: What's YOUR life story?

What's the life experience that led you to your own set of beliefs, and the points of emphasis which accentuate those beliefs?

If we all heard each other's stories, we wouldn't necessarily agree more, but we would find it easier to at least respect a political opponent... maybe not the opponents in Washington, D.C., but the opponents we work with, go to basketball games with, and go to concerts with. Perhaps the next-door neighbor, too.

We must continue to fight for our views and for the principles we hold dear. However, this should not lead us, in America or anywhere else in the world, to think that an opponent is deranged, disordered, dysfunctional, demonic, demented, or in some way intent on promoting evil.

There are some fanatics in the world (think Osama Bin Laden) who are removed from any and all reason. There are a few people (Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe) who cannot be bargained with or persuaded on pretty much anything.

But let's emphasize the key word there: FEW.

Most of us - if we sat down and talked with each other - would not agree with an opposing worldview, but could at least be made to see what an opponent or colleague is at least trying to achieve.

This has implications for how we see abortion; more importantly, it has implications for how we carry ourselves throughout our lives in the larger realm of politics.


  1. So much of what you say is true. I can understand why somebody might think that the government should redistribute wealth, or favor a single payer health care system, or go to war in Iraq, or long for the elimination of nuclear arms (none of which I agree with, but all of which I can understand.)

    The part I have trouble with is the issue of abortion, specifically. Anybody who's seen an ultrasound of an 8- or 12- or 20- week old baby KNOWS that it is a life. It's absolutely undeniable. How am I to try to reason with somebody that either 1) denies this obvious truth or 2) justifies killing the baby anyways? I can't reason with Bin Laden and I can't bargain with Mugabe, but how is somebody who supports the right to kill their unborn child any different?

    Any parent would readily die for their child to save his life, would they not? Yet I'm supposed to understand or reason with somebody that would kill their own child (or support my right to do so)? How? It is such a cruel and unreasonable position that you may as well try to sympathize with Pol Pot. How can I understand somebody that thinks that human life is so worthless?

    Now, that is not to say that we should be in the business of condemnation of people. We are all sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God. Condemnation is the duty of God alone. But I can surely condem the act. But it's a far different thing to ask that I have a "mutual respect" for that position when there is such a vast discrepancy in moral equivalence? Would you ask me to find some mutual respect for the Nazis or the Janjaweed? I think not. How is this different? Because we don't see the dead bodies?

  2. John,

    Well-considered thoughts, as always.

    I'll have something for Monday or Tuesday as we slowly peel away layers in this and other discussions that need to take place in America's public commons.