On April 16, 2007, my son called me at work to tell me there had been a shooting on the Virginia Tech campus where he was a graduate student. He was at his apartment — safe — and he wanted me to know that before the news came across the Internet. I asked about his girlfriend. “She’s fine, too,” he told me. They were the only two people in the world I knew in Blacksburg.
I am not proud of what I did next. I took a breath. And I was thankful.
For a long time, I let myself off the hook about that. It was human nature. It was what we do in the face of imminent danger to those we love.
But this crazy summer, I no longer give myself a pass. I think my reaction is the worst thing about us.
This summer we’re spending a lot of time talk about our “tribes.” We’re fond of that term. It makes us sound loving, collegial, connected. But increasingly it’s nothing more than code — for the people who look like us and agree with us. The ones on our side.
We’re getting too good at boxing ourselves into social media corners, where we scream about who is right or wrong. Or which lives matter. Or where all the fault lies. We search out the perfect meme that makes our point in the snarkiest or cruelest way, and hit keys that launch it out there to do our speaking for us. We can’t wait to tell people in other “tribes” all the reasons they are wrong.
Because this summer is crazy, I’m resisting that though I’m not always successful. One refuge is that I’m having long email chats with a friend from high school. We mention kids and grandchildren, but it’s mostly politics with us, as it has been since we were in high school. He is a judge and a staunch conservative. I am not.
He promises he won’t quote Milton Friedman, but I can tell he wants to, and he makes me smile as I read. We have been diametrically opposed in every political point that has ever crossed our paths since we met in 1966. And though we went years with no contact while our lives got busy, for fifty years I’ve loved this man, and I know he has loved me. And we’ve done it from across the aisle.
What his friendship brings me is the comforting truth that people who disagree with us are not automatically haters. Good citizens and decent human beings can be on the other side of most arguments though that’s hard to see this summer. And those memes — easy to reach for — only contain a lick of truth half the time anyway.
So I’m searching for moments of clarity these days wherever I can find them. In the library last week, as I walked through the automatic doors and into the lobby, one was waiting. I noticed an old woman leaning against the wall, probably waiting for her ride to pull up. She could have been 85. She could have been 105. She was clearly working hard, using her cane just to stay propped up.
Just at that moment, a librarian left her post behind the counter and was dragging a chair over so the woman could sit. I watched as she gently got her comfortable for her wait.
There was nothing about these two women that signaled they might be part of the same “tribe.” Not their age. Not their race. Not any physical or socioeconomic attribute I could see. For all I know, they’ll get to the voting booth on November 8th and go in opposing directions. It was simply one pure act of kindness, unheralded and often missing in this crazy summer of ours.
And I’m holding it close. Because that’s the best thing about us.