By Marieke Slovin Lewis / Prescott, Ariz.
“What’s all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself—the man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him.”
-Herman Melville, Moby Dick
In my experience, one of life’s great challenges is talking (as opposed to shouting) with people who hold different world views. It’s easy to get into an altercation even with someone holding similar beliefs. When I was teaching in France in 2004, I met another American teacher after an orientation training. We got to talking about the upcoming Bush-Gore election. We were chatting as chums until she said she was voting for Nader. We were both environmentalists, but I believed that voting for Nader would take votes away from Gore. Pretty much the interchange unraveled from there. The dialogue became so heated we had to stop talking and part ways.
In the years since, I have studied nonviolent communication, meditation, yoga, and sustainability. I have worked a great deal on my own communication skills, and I have lived all over the country and the world.
My husband and I left the United States five years ago, spending that time living in Brussels, Belgium and Bailleul, France. We met people from all over the world. My husband studied for his doctorate at a Flemish university. I studied yoga at a studio where the regular clientele were like a United Nations of countries represented by men and women in multicolored yoga pants. I also volunteered every Monday afternoon at the Fedasil Arrival Centre, the first port of call for people registering for asylum in Belgium, where I led weekly songwriting workshops for refugees to write songs from their migration stories.
When my husband and I arrived in Belgium mere months before the 2016 presidential election, we joked that at least if Donald Trump were elected, we would be safely ensconced in Europe. We went to bed the night of the election with Hillary in the lead and were shocked to wake up to four years of Trump. In the years since his election, there has been a domino effect from more outspoken bigotry, misogyny, and racism. This has led to escalating tensions and an ever-increasing divide both in the United States and in Europe. Populism and conservative movements are on the rise and discrimination and intolerance along with them.
This past summer, we returned from Europe to our home in Prescott, Arizona, a place where we quite literally experience this divide every time we leave the house. If we are not careful, and get sucked into the dark vortex of social media, we are not even safe from intolerance and ignorance in our own home.
Prescott is a quirky kind of community. We joke that there are people from all walks of life and everyone meets at the dog park. Before we moved to Europe from Arizona, a man at the dog park told me he wouldn’t move there without his gun. He also suggested that I have someone from Arizona mail me a box with Stetson hat in it and then to be sure to open it in front of all the Belgians. He didn’t make any suggestions of what to do after opening the box.
My husband works at Prescott College, a private liberal arts school with a focus on social justice and sustainability. There are yoga teachers and cowboys in Prescott, along with an annual rodeo people celebrate as the world’s oldest. There is a large VA hospital and retired vets. Embry-Riddle University draws many pilots, many slated for the military. There are signs around the town center that read, “Prescott, Everyone’s Hometown.”
But the happy inclusivity suggested in this sign is not part of the reality for everyone in Prescott. We know many left-minded folk, LGBTQ+, and people of color who have left Prescott because they did not feel welcome. Nearly a year since our return, we are wondering what we are doing back here instead of in Europe, where people are not armed and have access to high quality, affordable healthcare.
Soon after our return, we met a young woman and her puppy while we were out walking with our own dog along one of the trails by our house. Our dog is a husky and instantly took a liking to her puppy, a husky-lab mix. Huskies have a particular way of playing similar to that of wolves. Lots of vocalizations and chewing on ears and neck. It can alarming to people who are not familiar with the breed. Huskies all play this way, and it is especially fun for them to play together.
We agreed that it would fun for the dogs to get to play together periodically, and we began walking in the mornings several times a week. The young woman—I will call her Rachel—would text me when she and Zeus were headed our way. As soon as my dog, Atticus, got wind of Zeus, he was overcome with excitement. I would attempt to get him to sit before taking his leash off. He would instantly set off at a sprint to greet his best friend.
We spent a half hour, walking a loop around the neighborhood. Then the dogs would play in my yard before we parted ways for the day.
The encounters were pleasant. I learned that Rachel was originally from the Southeast and now worked at a smoke shop in town. Her go-to outfits were leggings, sneakers without socks, and hooded sweatshirts. We chitchatted, exchanging small-talk pleasantries. I made assumptions from our conversations about her worldview and values. She described the unfolding of the pandemic in this area, and I talked about my experiences in Europe. She mentioned at one point that there was a strict masking up policy in a town called Jerome, an artist enclave on Mingus Mountain, not far from Prescott. Since she didn’t say anything at that point about not masking up, I assumed this was her own protocol.
I am not much of a small talk kind of person. I like to share elements of my life and experience. And it’s challenging to keep the conversation limited to the weather when you spend 30 minutes with a person several times a week. So our conversations naturally began to evolve. She shared challenges she was facing at her work, and I talked about Buddhist philosophy and the teachings of Thich Nath Hahn.
It wasn’t until we had been walking for several months later that I learned that she was not vaccinated and that she believed the pandemic was a conspiracy put forward by the government. This was revealed when I mentioned being happy to be teaching yoga in a studio again but also nervous to be in a space where no one was wearing a mask, even though I was vaccinated and boosted.
I’m sure you know I am not vaccinated, she said to me.
I recall nodding in response, too nonplussed to say anything. I understand when people have legitimate health concerns surrounding the vaccine. I have trouble with people protesting tracking devices being slipped into vaccines while they simultaneously post selfies of their whereabouts on social media.
Another morning, we spoke at length about the importance of kindness. For me, kindness is thinking about other people’s wellbeing and not just my own. This includes getting vaccinated.
I think being able to find common ground and engage in dialogue even when our beliefs might be very different is what will save the world, I said. She agreed.
Back at the house, our conversation turned toward politics and conspiracy theory. It turned out that she was a Trump supporter. This was revealed when I mentioned that at least Biden was better than Trump in response to one of her comments.
She did not agree and proceeded to talk about how Trump had done much more for the country than Biden and that the media vilified the former President every step of the way. She went on to say that governments had gone to great lengths to convince people there was a pandemic rocking the globe. To avoid conflict, I didn’t add anything further than to say that I did not agree, and we soon parted ways.
The shock waves from this conversation left me feeling unsettled, disappointed, and physically ill. It took a lot of cleaning house to rid myself of the vestiges of nausea from hearing someone I had come to care about claim that Trump and the Republicans were well-intentioned. It seemed unconscionable that anyone could actually make this claim. I just assume that people who are kind and care about helping other people will agree that overall, the Democrats do more for the many than the Republicans.
My thoughts and emotions spiraled into a dark, ethical place as I contemplated ad nauseum the many questions, rhetorical and specific, this interchange raised in my heart and mind.
If she supports Trump, how does she feel about Jews? Homosexuals and transgenders? Black Americans? Refugees? Does she refer to people fleeing unsafe situations as refugees, undocumented immigrants, or flat out illegal?
Such is my discomfort with conflict and confrontation that I thought about simply ghosting her without explanation and avoiding walking with her anymore. I definitely did not relish the idea of an actual in-person dialogue to explain how I had been affected by her words. Instead, I took the route of written communication and sent a text that I would be happy to continue walking with her but that I did not want to talk about politics. I added that I was saddened and pained by the way Trump and Republicans had treated women, refugees, people of color, LGBTQ+, and minorities.
Rachel: Of course we can still walk together, I’m not hateful like that. The one thing I’ll say, for your own sanity, is I would definitely educate yourself a little more if you’re open to it because a lot of the “liberal” side is just as against the same things as “Republicans” and in worse ways sometimes, they just hide it. But we can most definitely still walk together and definitely not talk about politics.
Me: Honestly, I don’t think there’s a huge difference between Democrats and Republicans, but Democrats tend to try to put forward efforts that help people. I’m not a big fan of politicians in general.
We texted back and forth and eventually we decided that we preferred the company of our huskies to that of most people. With this detente I felt some relief, but there was one comment that continued to concern me over the course of the next several days.
The one thing I’ll say, for your own sanity, is I would definitely educate yourself a little bit more…
I have learned that it’s best not to respond when you are triggered. I also know from experience that written communication about difficult matters can lead to all kinds of interpretation and misunderstanding. I learned this the hard way when my husband and I were long distance for four years. Now if I text him about a topic that could lead to miscommunication if we text about it, he will usually respond, Can we talk about this when I get home? With all of this in mind, I did not respond right away and instead sent her response to my husband and a couple of close friends to get their thoughts and advice.
Friend: It seems to me that she's genuine and doing the best she can.
Me: I don’t know. She was not at all open to hearing different views. I mean, maybe that is the best she can do.
My husband: I think you should stop texting about it and probably not walk with her anymore if it was causing this much duress. Life is too short.
Another friend suggested that there were other dogs in Prescott that my dog could play with. She told me there is a Facebook group called “Inclusive Prescott.” She suggested that I could join and share a post, Seeking open-minded people and their dogs to walk with…..
I wanted to be able to find a resolution and continue to walk with them. Part of this was because I agreed with my friend who thought Rachel was being genuine and trying. I also did not want to have a conflict with a person whom I might pass on a regular basis, walking in our neighborhood. Finally, I wanted to be the kind of person who could find a way to be amicable and friendly with someone, even if they held different beliefs. Wasn’t that an integral element of diversity in action? I also wanted to alleviate the unresolved feelings of discomfort I was continuing to experience, and so I decided to communicate about how I was affected by her words.
Rachel texted me the following Monday morning to walk.
Me: We have painters coming. I am also still feeling bummed out about your comment that I need to educate myself.
Rachel: I do apologize for offending you, but I do wish you would have said something the other day so I could have explained and not stewed on it for days staying upset about. I didn't mean it as you are uneducated, just maybe not as open to hearing things that don't fit your beliefs/views as I am, which again isn't a bad thing. In my experience, a lot of people have formed opinions/views and aren't ever willing to even see another perspective or what is actually the truth is all and that's part of what's wrong with the world right now. Again, I apologize for offending you and hope you have a great day 🤓👋
Was I really not open to hearing different beliefs? Was I a metaphor for the division and intolerance in the world? I reflected on this, reminding myself that miscommunication and interpretation run rampant in written communication.
Me: Thanks. I think we both seem pretty set on the truth we see. It would be nice for people to be more open, I agree. Sending you both love on this chilly morning. ❤️
Rachel: I am 1000% open to hearing other truths and perspectives actually, I welcome it. I often ask people how our current administration is helping this country and its citizens and no one can seem to give me an actual answer is all lol but I would still welcome the conversation and listen to what that person had to say and if it was something I'd never heard before, I would look into it further.
These are the difficult conversations that our nation does not seem to be engaging with. Politics and beliefs are ever more binary. Tempers and stress are at an all-time high. And dialogue has become even more challenging.
With all of this in mind, I tried to judiciously share a modicum of information with Rachel.
Me: That’s great. I can certainly send you information. I honestly don’t love politicians, but I think overall the Democrats do try to help the many. Trying to protect voting rights, for example, as opposed to making it more difficult for minorities to vote. Trying to help people have affordable healthcare. It just didn’t seem like you were open to any critique about the Republicans or Trump.
She did not reply to the examples I shared.
Rachel: Evil doesn't choose sides and it's everywhere right now. At this point, the ultimate battle is good vs evil and that's all I focus on. I am always open for conversation, I create a very safe space for people bc that's what I would want. I just can't always guarantee that the conversation is going to cater to their feelings and not just be a real, truthful conversation. One of the reasons I don't have many serious conversations with people these days, I'm not going to sugarcoat the truth just to avoid conflict, and people can't handle that.
I think the key word here is “truth.” It’s a slippery term, especially because pretty much any truth you want to believe can be justified through interpretation of religious texts, information online, and views shared by friends, family, and politicians. I still felt that she was embracing a fairly myopic perspective on what might be considered “truth,” but I also recognized that this may come more from being limited in her life experiences and role models. I have been privileged to live and travel all over the world. I have witnessed firsthand the long-term, often devastating effects of poor international policies and national policies. I have also intentionally worked with people with very different backgrounds from my own.
Me: I think there are many promises made and a lot of time spent on making people afraid or like they need a person or group of people to blame. Not much accountability. I also think truth is a tricky thing and there is so much information online and information presented in nuanced ways (and incompletely) so that any truth an individual, politician, or corporation wants to present is possible.
She didn’t respond to any of my reflections on truth or ways the Democrats were attempting to help the many as opposed to Republicans, who I see consistently opposing any actions that might help those in the greatest need. She did seem to want to be able to keep trying to communicate, and this was what I found most hopeful.
Rachel: Having difficult conversations that don't actually end in a horrific fight is a good thing I think. For me at least, helps restore my faith in humanity a little. Just hard to stay a good person when there's so much evil in the world, but that's how we'll win this 💕
As children we learn that if we don’t have anything nice to say we shouldn’t say anything at all. I agree with this to an extent. There are zealots and extremists with whom it is a complete waste of energy to try to engage in any kind of dialogue. On the other hand, when a person is coming from a place of wanting to embody compassion, I will try to meet them halfway.
My husband suggests that when we come up against people with closed minds or hatred in their heart it is because they are living in their own nightmare, and this can stem from all kinds of life experiences and choices in how they view the world. My husband will often suggest that instead of sending ire or wrath, I can send blessings. So this is what I did.
Me: You are a GREAT person!❤️
Rachel: Thanks, so are you!
I may not have saved humanity from itself just yet, but at least I was able to keep an open heart. In a place like Arizona, this is no small feat. And if we don’t have anything nice to say, we can always send an emoji heart.
Marieke Slovin Lewis is a writer, musician, singer-songwriter, yoga teacher, and editor. She holds a Ph.D. in Sustainability Education and writes music from people's life stories, using a method called Story-to-Song that she developed with a fellow doctoral student. She was recently recognized as a finalist for the 2021 Amateo Award for arts participation projects in Europe for her project, "On the Move: Poems and Songs of Migration," for which she wrote songs with refugees and asylum seekers in Brussels, Belgium about their migration experiences. Marieke is a wandering soul and has lived all over the world. She is currently living with her husband, three cats, and a big white husky in Prescott, Arizona.