Taking flight into difficult but meaningful conversations
Molineaux is co-publisher of The Fulcrum and president/CEO of the Bridge Alliance Education Fund.
It has been nearly two weeks since I spent five hours on a flight with my new friend, “Jane.” Last week I shared my experience in listening to Jane and my observations about her. This week, I want to share Jane’s impact on me and what I also observed about myself.
I was initially irritated when Jane didn’t read my “leave me alone” body language on the plane including my noise-canceling headphones, phone in hand, etc. As an introvert, I love the anonymity of air travel where I can go into my own bubble and be with my own thoughts. Once I realized that she was seeking human connection, I surrendered to the idea that there was a reason she was so insistent. What I didn’t mention in my column last week was the third person in our row of seats – a 40ish man who happened to agree with her on most topics. He was in and out of our conversation, alternately engaging, writing and sleeping.
There were several times while Jane was sharing her story that I wanted to tell her she was wrong and had mis-read the situation or missed other facts that would contradict her beliefs. Yet I felt flat-footed, because I haven’t spent thousands of hours researching primary sources, as she has in her daily life.
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I am skeptical by nature and question the truth when presented with things offered as the truth. I don’t seek the truth like a crusader and perhaps that’s why I am more open to examination instead of blind acceptance of statements of fact. If a news story is sensationalized, I count it less. If it is “just the facts,” I count it more. My research is less in-depth. So my worldview is less fixed on a particular core belief than Jane’s belief that there is a small group of powerful elites trying to kill us.
Within my worldview, I believe that we are writing our own stories – past, present and future. We have the facts – what happened without any assigned meaning. We have interpretations – where we assign the meaning to what happened. Our individual stories live in our particular mix of those two factors. This is how two children can grow up in the same home and have vastly different experiences within the family.
This is our collective conundrum. With so many possible interpretations of the facts, how do we find enough common stories to share our nation with those who are very different from ourselves?
While Jane’s theories and experiences didn’t trigger me (this time), I have seen my progressive and liberal friends be triggered. Instead of listening, they offer what I call “liberal arrogance” that they are too smart to fall for the conspiracy theories. In an offhand way, instead of seeing the person as whole, they see someone as stupid or gullible.
People who believe in conspiracy theories are neither dumb nor gullible. The pleasures of blind acceptance of conspiracy theories are many. As we seek to make sense of things that don’t make sense, we gravitate to theories that confirm what we may want to believe for a variety of reasons. Mostly, conspiracy theories are an interpretation of some cherry-picked fact, around which we make meaning. When conditions are right – usually when there is economic uncertainty and a rapidly changing culture – people blame the elites for harming our lives.
Jane helped me to think more deeply about how we unwittingly denigrate each other by ignoring those around us. She helped me see that engagement isn’t supposed to always be pleasurable. But it is supposed to help us connect with each other, to sense-make collectively so we can see ourselves in each other’s stories.
We have a story problem, not an intelligence problem.
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