By all accounts we’re in the midst of an intensely weird presidential election. Whatever happens on November 8, it will be historic. Most people have strong opinions about our contenders. But I don’t want to talk about that right now. I want to talk about Regis.
Regis and I were co-workers at a local church. He was the custodian. I was the secretary. He used to be a prison guard, but health issues forced him to pick up a less stressful part-time job. He is also a handyman-–carpentry, remodeling. Once a year he goes on a mission trip to some third world country or storm-ravaged state to build houses. I admire that. I like people who use their gifts to help others.
I would describe Regis as average size, average build, average age, and average hair color, but with an extraordinarily pleasant personality and blue eyes that smiled when he did. In the year and a half I worked at that church I heard one complaint about him. One. After many years working in many churches, I can testify to this: A church custodian that draws only one complaint from hundreds of church women is a half-step away from divinity.
Most Friday mornings before leaving, he’d check in to trade work-related information. As we got to know each other better, we spent more time in nonessential friendly chatter as well.
Neither of us punched a time clock, so we felt no remorse in our Friday morning “bull sessions,” as he called them. Regis had teenage daughters, so I was interested in that, having a pre-teen myself. He was interested in another woman’s perspective when he and his wife disagreed. We talked about our families, kids’ sports teams, personal finances, theology, news of the world, crazy things we did as kids, favorite restaurants. While we found much in common, there was one topic on which we were polar opposites: politics.
I know a lot of people with whom I differ on politics. With most of them, I avoid the subject, but talking politics with Regis was different.
Without guile, we could ask each other “But how can you believe x, if you know y…” and then we’d do a novel thing and actually listen to the answer. It was a calm and curious line of questioning. A discussion. I’d like to think we both came away from these conversations a little more informed. I don’t know that either of us did much convincing or converting, but it helped me fully examine my views, it created empathy and understanding for the other side. And we discovered a lot of middle ground where we could agree. Sure, we kidded around a bit, but mean words and insults were not exchanged. We sought out what we agreed on and compared experiences and opinions on what we did not agree on. It was a refreshing exercise during a big election year.
The morning of the election Regis brought in a huge campaign yard sign for his candidate and left it in my office chair as a joke. I pretended to give him the stinkeye through the office door glass and we laughed about it.
The next morning after my candidate won, I doctored up his sign a bit and returned it to his work station.
He said nothing about it. He said nothing at all to me. All day. Clearly he was not amused.
At first I was a little angry. After all, he started it. But then I realized he wasn’t mad. The results of this election scared the hell out of him. When I broached the subject on Friday, he laid out a list of predictions that bordered on Armageddon. His eyes were not smiling.
Part of me thought he was being ridiculous. But part of me – the part of me that had come to treasure his companionship – that part of me felt his pain as my pain. I felt genuinely terrible for him.
I put aside my personal feelings of post-election triumph and addressed him as the friend he was. Almost certainly it wasn’t as clear or as elegant as I recall, but I remember telling him that it doesn’t really matter who’s sitting in that big white house. What matters more is what you and I do, the everyday choices we make about how to treat each other.
Sometimes we outgrow attitudes and opinions, but this one still seems spot-on to me. I still feel that where the system is breaking down the most is not at the top, it’s at the ground level: Employers and employees not respecting one another, co-workers and neighbors passing each other wordlessly, parents and children not discussing the big whys of life, teachers and students and parents not walking in each other’s shoes, everyday people from all walks of life and from all different backgrounds and views who refuse to see past the end of their own noses.
If you’re thinking this election season is different from all others, that this election season the other side has no valid points to make, nothing to add to the discussion… well, you might want to reach out to someone on the other side.
I must confess some of the rhetoric this campaign season has shocked and, yes, scared the hell out of me, but no politician gathers a following if he or she isn’t speaking to serious concerns held by a large number of people. Concerns that keep people up at night. Concerns that need to be addressed.
I’m thinking about Regis this election season because I’ve recently come to understand the fear he felt that November from our shared past. A fear of the election. Armageddon-like predictions.
I realize I need to take my own advice from back then. It’s been a hard sell this election season, but it was probably just as hard for him in 2008. I’m thinking about Regis this election season and missing the kind of authentic discussion we shared, the peace between us that allowed us to be friends despite our differences.
Of course it does matter who’s sitting in that big white house (so please vote). But I still have to agree, what matters more is what you and I do, the everyday choices we make about how to treat each other. So let’s start treating each other better. Let’s start listening.