On Road Construction and Political Conversation and Choosing to Listen

They’re tearing down trees.

I can hear it through the window as I write: the steady drone of heavy equipment, the beep-beep-beep of a truck in reverse, the crashing and grinding of trunks and branches being stacked and chipped.

The powers-that-be have decided our scenic rural highway is far too dangerous in its current state, so they’re “fixing” it. That is, they’re widening and straightening it, a project which will cost months of construction, the lives of upwards of 1500 trees, and $28 million.

Jonathan and I are resignedly dissatisfied with the whole thing, but the girls? The girls are indignant.

There’s a running commentary from the backseat when we get caught in construction traffic:

“Hey! Stop cutting down all these trees! WHY are you doing this?!?”

“Yeah! Stop destroying my mom’s running trail! My mom runs there, and you’re RUINING it!”

“Look, Abby, they aren’t even working on the right part of the road. THIS is where they need to do it. I hope the road destruction goes this far.”

“Yeah. They really need to do destruction on THIS part of the road.”

It’s a mix of righteous indignation and ignorance, with just enough truth thrown in to be dangerous. I won’t lie: it bears a striking resemblance to what passes for political commentary these days.

We’ve talked to the girls about the road construction. We’ve tried to address this idea they have that those in charge are malignant, or ignorant, or foolish. We’ve explained that people often have different ideas about how things should be done, and that, most of the time, everyone is just trying to do what they think is best.

It’s a hard sell for little kids who see the world in black and white, right and wrong, truth and lies.

Who am I kidding? It’s a hard sell for me, too.

On days where our frustrations with others reach a boiling point, Jonathan and I work hard to remind ourselves: nobody is a villain in their own story.

(That makes us sound more noble than we actually are. In reality, we grumble and complain and think uncharitable thoughts and, on the good days, the days where conscience pricks, we begrudgingly remember and try to afford others the benefit of the doubt.)

This election season, I’m adding another few words for myself.

Nobody is a villain, a coward, or an idiot in their own story.

Including myself.

I don’t often wade into the marsh of political conversation here on this blog. I prefer to skirt its edges, only daring to dip in a toe every now and then. But this election concerns me in ways that those of the past have not.

My concern doesn’t lie with either major candidate’s qualifications, or policies, or character (or lack thereof). As important as those things are, I’m much more worried about the response of the electorate, regardless of whether Biden or Trump (or Jorgensen!) wins the election. The future of our democracy may very well be at stake, but that future will be determined less by the person who inhabits the White House on January 20 than by the way the American people behave on November 4th.

I fear we – and I do sincerely mean “we”; I include myself in this critique – I fear that we have forgotten how to listen to each other, how to disagree without demonizing. We’ve forgotten how to acknowledge and identify the sources of others’ frustrations when those others sit on the opposite side of the political spectrum.

But here’s the thing.

All of “them” – the Trump enthusiasts, the BLM protesters, the abortionists, the Back the Blue folks, the misogynists, the racists, the leftists, the socialists, whichever group of people I want to identify, whatever name I want to apply – they’re all my neighbors. My friends. My family. They’re people here, in my town and my state and my country – and in yours.

And none of them are villains, idiots, or cowards in their own story.

This isn’t to say that people don’t have base motives for their actions or their beliefs, that they never act out of hatred, or fear, or ignorance. Because they do. Of course they do.

(By which I mean, I do. Of course I do. Of course I act out of hatred and fear and ignorance. More often than I care to admit.)

It isn’t an argument for relativism, either. Understanding another view does not mean subscribing to it. Being empathetic toward somebody else does not mean excusing their behavior or their decisions. Respecting others enough to listen and engage does not require me to sacrifice my own convictions.

I’m not a starry-eyed idealist, thinking that somehow, if we just sit down and hear each other out, we’ll solve all our problems and end up around a campfire, holding hands and singing kumbaya. There are fundamental differences in how people view the world and disagreements that cannot be resolved by conversation.

But for me, it keeps coming back to this: if I cannot understand why somebody thinks the way they do, if I cannot trust that their motivations are at least as good as my own messy mix of altruism and fear and discomfort and ignorance and sincere belief, then have I really listened?

Miles is at the age where he can quite clearly communicate his feelings without uttering a word.

He’s mastered the art of the grunt and point. His full-bellied laugh is enough to crack even the hardest of hearts. He’s quick to express his frustration when an older sister takes something he deems is his, or when she closes him out of her room.

Recently, I’ve noticed another trend in his communication: the need for acknowledgment. He’ll come to me, yowling with each step, patting his head or pointing to his hand or gesturing down the hall. I’ll scoop him up in a hug, but that isn’t enough. The crying continues until I give words to his complaint.

“Oh, buddy. Did you bonk your head?” or “Oh, no. Did Abby take your toy?” or “Hey big guy. Did Katie close her door?”

It’s only then, when I’ve acknowledged and identified the source of his pain, that he quiets and calms, nestling in against my chest for comfort.

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