An Improbable Dinner

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Editor’s Note: This is a reflection by Braver Angels member Michael Whidden. -LNP

In April 2022, we were in Simpsonville, South Carolina, having the most improbable of dinners.  And, yet, it was utterly remarkable… in how un-remarkable it felt.

I had brought my family of five, longtime residents of deep-blue Brooklyn, NY, to meet a new friend, Eric Ireland, and his family, longtime residents of this solidly-red area.  We only knew each other through video chats and phone calls, as if we had met through an online service for taboo political friending. Not too far from the truth.  But more about that later.

We had chosen to dine at a casual local outdoor venue, with vendors offering pizza, burgers, Cubano paninis, a raw bar and more. Simpsonville is a town within the metropolitan area of centerpiece city Greenville.

Greenville has been heralded by Money.com and U.S. News as one of America’s best places to live. It was profiled in James and Deborah Fallows’ national bestseller Our Towns because of the renaissance city leaders ignited two generations ago.  The area is located in South Carolina’s Upcountry, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, giving ready access to lush forests, lakes and waterways, not to mention scenic waterfalls in Greenville’s very city center.

Miranda (our 15-year-old daughter) and Eli (Eric’s 16-years-old son) sat at our communal picnic table discussing each other’s mind-bogglingly-different commutes to high school. Hers, by subway.  His, by the interstate.  Our two sons listened in.  My wife Christie and I sat adjacent and in rapt conversation with Eric and his wife Lisa.

As the sun set behind the trees, I found hope, faith and goodwill soaring in my heart.

There are pervasive societal forces in contemporary America incentivized by eyeballs and clicks—by dollars and votes—to prevent such a gathering.  To keep us wary of each other.  Fearful.  Angry.  Firmly opposed.

But, while it would be satisfying to stop there—to simply blame our country’s current tensions on the media, politicians and special interests behind such forces—it would be unfaithful to the most audacious notion of our nation: a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

It is each of us who is ultimately responsible for the rancorous tenor of unconstructive discourse in the United States. Not Joe Biden.  Not Donald Trump.  Not MSNBC.  Not Fox News.  Not Facebook.  Not Twitter.

We owed that lovely night—and our delightfully engrossing but otherwise very typical adult conversations about vacations and children and careers and health concerns and marriage origin stories—to one of the surging new forces in American society addressing that uncomfortable, unavoidable fact: Braver Angels.

Braver Angels is an organization bringing together Americans of all political stripes, repairing the very fabric of our democracy.  Stitch by stitch.  They are taking the flip side of our collective culpability and empowering us and challenging us to become the solution.

Braver Angels was formed in December 2016.  Ten Trump supporters and 11 Clinton supporters gathered in Lebanon, Ohio, to actually listen to each other.  I joined in December 2020, grasping for an antidote to the year’s ever-increasing tension and ever-heightening stakes.  By early 2022, Braver Angels had over 10,000 active, dues-paying members.

I watched a few video gatherings which impressed me with insightful, sensible, third-way depictions of current events.  I read newsletters.  I participated in one of their 1:1 conversations which pair people across differences.  As an urban dweller, I had a wonderfully thoughtful chat with Shantana Goerge Simmon, a farmer in rural Michigan.

Fast forward to August 2021.  My family and I had just returned from vacation on Hilton Head Island, SC. We enjoyed the sultry summer days and postcard-perfect beach time.  But I had been wracked by an undercurrent of anxiety, bracing myself for mask showdowns (which never materialized) and political confrontations (ditto).

I realized that, while I had seen aspects of South Carolina, I never got to know any of its people. So, I reached out to Donna Murphy, Director of Braver Angels 1:1 conversations, and she was able to accommodate my very specific and very unorthodox request to speak with someone from the Palmetto State.

Eric was curious enough and brave enough to heed her call.  He sent me a friendly email on August 29, 2021. We had a video conference on September 1.  Since then, we have had nearly a dozen other such conferences or phone calls.  We have exchanged more than two hundred emails. When I started my own podcast series, American Tributaries, to help myself and listeners learn about people outside our bubbles of existence, he enthusiastically agreed to be my first guest.

But why did we first click?  Imbued with the spirit and guidance of Braver Angels, we resisted the urge to engage each other as caricatures. We asked questions.  We listened to each other.  We explored our different ways of life.  We discussed what we liked about each other’s areas. We shared our respective frustrations and grievances.

Needless to say, sharing those feelings was the most cathartic—but also the most risky—part of our conversations (especially the first one) because of the vulnerability it required. But, I found, when I described my fears from January 6th, Eric didn’t revert to a “party line” but listened and related.  When he spoke about his frustration with a national dialogue which didn’t seem to ever acknowledge the South’s progress on racism, I…yes…listened and related.

Eric, indeed, went further and explained how troubled he had been by the George Floyd tragedy and read some books to learn more about African-American challenges in our society. His inclination to lean in to what he didn’t know inspired me to ask for a recommended book about his state.  A few weeks later, I was engrossed in Walter Edgar’s nearly 600-page authoritative tome “South Carolina: A History”.

Curiosity begat curiosity.  Respect begat respect.  Compassion begat compassion.

Openness led to conversations.  Those conversations led to understanding and relating—which led to a friendship—which led to that dinner—which led to our families bonding.

We’ve since returned home to our tree-lined, brownstone-framed Brooklyn neighborhood.  But, now, a “blue” family of New Yorkers has treasured memories and American fellowship with a “red” family of South Carolinians.

Now, I want to get back to that table with the Irelands.

Now, I want to add seats and invite others to our table of fellowship.

That table may become admittedly raucous and contentious.  How could it not? Even the dinner table of like-minded friends or a family’s weekday meal or a holiday gathering of extended relatives (sharing DNA and family history!) can, at times, devolve quite precipitously.

But amidst the noise and distractions, we will break bread.  We will converse.  We will help each other understand each other.  We will support each other. We will listen.

Because we need each other.  We need the broad array of experiences and motivations and views that bring along a similarly broad array of insights and skills and ingenuity to successfully confront and overcome the challenges of our world—present and future—known and unknown.

I know this transformation which we so desperately need—and which so many silently yearn for—can happen, because I have lived it.

Because, before my heart soared on that April night, my spirit and confidence had been sunk in the most intractable anger and intolerance, confusion and impotence. For years.

Because, since December 2016, Braver Angels has had the unflinching courage and audacity to believe in the decency and unity of the American people.

Because Eric Ireland had the good heart and open mind to help a fellow American in New York learn a bit more about our country and its people.

Because this New York Democrat is now forever grateful to a South Carolina Republican.

Our dinner was most improbable. But it is most assuredly quite possible.

Be brave.  Be curious.  Pull up a chair.

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