Breaking Cookies: A Story of Necessary Conversation
Over spring break I gave my students an assignment: Find someone who holds opposing political views and conduct a civil conversation.
Ask questions, I told them. Listen without judgment. Try to find common ground.
Predictably, some chose roommates. But a handful did the difficult thing. They talked to strangers.
One travelled to Kent Country, MI, to build a Habitat home. There, on a rooftop, she met an 82 year old who uses his skills to help neighbors in need.
As they got down to it, she asked him why he’d voted for Trump. He recounted a tale of demoralization, as his community lost industrial jobs. Their skills had earned them homes, college tuition, and the dream that their kids could do better than they had. Those were good days, he told her. People had purpose. He believes that Trump will deliver on his promise to return us to some simulacrum of that past.
But what about immigrants, my student asked. What about health care? What about the wall? What about integrity and truth?
The old man listened to her make her case, then smiled.
“I respect that,” he said simply “We will agree to disagree. Let’s eat cookies.”
They climbed down from their ladders and did just that.
I have thought about this anecdote for days. Despite – or maybe because of — its lack of resolution, it is a clarion call to me of what’s required to rebuild the house of our democracy. It’s easy to react to our sense of threat by generating salvos aimed at the centers of power. Much harder to genuinely hear the pain and fear that put that power in place.
To be sure, vigilance against lies and lawlessness is necessary. But my student’s story reminds me that we will miss what we need to hear if this is all that we settle for. Asking questions with a genuine intent to hear the answers, my student invited someone to reveal his vulnerability. She heard not to a podcast about the effects of economic marginalization, but the grief in the voice of a real man.
The America so many of us fear losing as an outcome of the recent elections is one that has been in grave peril long before the emergence of Donald Trump. History will teach our grandchildren that the failures of successive administrations to address economic dislocation lay the fertile groundwork for his rise. People left on the dust heap will inevitably turn to gossamer and fantasy, wizards and false prophets in the guise of redeemers.
The cure may prove wrong, but the dis-ease – the frustration, the dread of poverty without end, and the loss of hope that goes with it — is real. This is what we need to hear now.
My students returned changed by this assignment. They reopened doors to friendships they’d avoided for months. They shared concerns with people who either didn’t vote, or who saw things differently. For a brief time, they became craftsmen of that all-but-lost value — civility and dialogue, the kind of friendship that dies when we cede power to centralized institutions of any kind.
That friendship is called citizenship. They discovered the power of refusing to wall themselves off from “the other,” and lob volleys at the emperor. They learned that real power resides in the capacity to bridge differences, face to face, with neighbors and strangers. Out of this, and only out of this, can come the ability to agree to disagree, and through it the common ground of respect, acceptance, even grace.
No arguments were resolved over spring break, but something opened for each of them. They know that rebuilding on scorched earth isn’t easy. But suddenly, there seems space in which to clear some of the rubble, things to learn, and new work to be done. Cookies to share and a future to build, together.