‘But what if one side is right and the other side is wrong?” (granddaughter)

“Then you fail to understand why the other side feels exactly the same way.” (grandfather)

This division, toasted in ignorance and buttered with rejection, has become our daily bread. It doesn’t have to be this way.

At a recent college class reunion, “Jim” walks up to “Rich” and begins peppering him with questions: “How long did you live in Alaska? What did you teach at the university? Where do you live now? Are you still teaching? Have you ever lived anywhere else? …

I’m thinking, “What? Are you writing his biography?”

Then I realized why “Jim” was such a successful, caring, and generous businessman. He really wanted to get to know at least one other person that day. He wanted to know, really know, another person.

We spend 12, 16, 20+ years in school packing our brains with facts, “stuff” we, and our teachers, think is both necessary and sufficient. Reading, writing, arithmetic, history, science, art. Diplomas, degrees and hundreds of tests behind us, we feel like we have learned pretty much all we need to know. And then we stop. And for the rest of our lives, each “new year” begins on New Year’s Eve rather than in September — and goes till Christmas rather than June. We’re good.

Depending on our field of study, we learn the names of the six quarks, the current exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the Lev, or the word for “snow” … in Sanskrit. If you are a particle physicist, currency trader, or linguist, you know this stuff. And the world counts on you. What don’t we know? We don’t know “Rich.” All too often, we don’t know the names of even half the people on our block. We don’t know each other. 

Even if we do know their names, how well do we know them? Countries they have visited — or would like to visit? Whom they would most like to have dinner with — and what would be the most important question they would like an honest answer to? What accomplishment gives them the most pride? What worries them most? What is their fervent hope for our collective future? If we never take the time to understand the people living right along-side of us, how will we ever find the time to understand people on the other side of us?

But what if one side’s right and the other side’s wrong?

When the Catholic Church condemned Galileo for saying the earth was not the center of the cosmos, one side was proven right and the other side wrong.

Black men were given the right to vote in 1870; white women in 1920, and black women in 1965. What we now see as obvious, was achieved not with telescopic proof, but by “right,” accomplished through struggle and consensus.

When one marital partner wants to paint the living room a deep green and the other a pale grey, the “right” thing to do — is to call a decorator because you’re both right but a choice has to be made. Three kinds of “right,” none of them wrong.

When setbacks, losses, unequal treatment, and frustrations of everyday life are weaponized into anger and blamed on the “other side,” we can no longer understand, talk through, and solve the underlying causes. Now at war with each other, it becomes impossible to talk to each other. And our daily bread, toasted in that ignorance, is now eagerly buttered with rejection. Sadly, there are people who want it to stay that way, who stoke those divisions for their own benefit, getting us to fight with each other so we don’t pay attention to what they are doing. They don’t want us to work together to solve those problems. They need a “bad guy,” an “other side” to rail against to justify why they, and not “the other side,” should be in charge. Daily bread, toasted by division. (“The Best of Enemies” by Osha Gray Davidson)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) studies and safeguards our air and water. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) explores everything beyond our home planet. We need a National People and Community Administration to help us reweave the fabric of our human connections. The more we learn about each other, the more we are able simply to talk with each other, the more difficult it is to demonize each other. So if you are of a mind to “ask not what your country can do for you …” we can take it upon ourselves to regain a “September” mindset — toward each other — and learn the hopes, wisdom and dreams of our neighbors with whom we share the tiniest of corners on planet earth.

Scientific advances rely on us learning “stuff.” The future of humanity relies on us learning about each other.

Would our daily bread be toasted in knowledge and buttered with acceptance? We can try.

Bill Sieck is a Berwyn resident who has long worked in Oak Park.

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