The day my brother graduated from college, my sister and I got into a car accident.
We were driving through Connecticut on Route 84 when a tractor trailer traveling in the same direction struck our car twice – once on the front end when the driver accidentally veered into our lane and again after our car spun out in front of his truck. My sister managed to hang on as we spiraled across the road and eventually pulled our car over into the left breakdown lane. We sat there screaming for a few moments after the car had stopped, then realized we were both ok and got out.
We had been driving home from the graduation in tandem with my parents, who were in front of us when the tractor trailer hit us; my mother watched the accident in her rearview mirror. She told us later that she just saw blue smoke moving across the road and kept saying “The girls! The girls!”
Right after my sister and I got out of the car, two couples traveling together in a car behind us pulled off, got out of their car, and came running over to us, shouting “Praise Jesus! You’re alive!”
We told them our parents were in a car in front of us and had probably pulled off to call for help. One of the men immediately got back in their car to go tell my parents we were ok. He found them calling the police from a payphone off the exit and reassured them that we were not injured.
While we waited for our parents and the police, we learned that the couples were from West Virginia and that one of the men was a minister. They told us that when they saw our car spinning, they were all praying “Lord, please save those people!”
We were raised Catholic, and although we attended mass every Sunday, Catholic services tend to be much less effusive than services in other denominations of Christianity, with very little quoting from the Bible or emoting about Jesus. In our experience, church involved stoically standing up, sitting down, and kneeling, followed by a polite handshake with the priest on the way out and then a dog-eat-dog competition to get out of the parking lot. (Anyone who attended Transfiguration in the 70s and 80s will remember how many of the charitable thoughts from the service evaporated during the race to get up the exit ramp.)
The version of Christianity that these two couples practiced was clearly different and frankly, somewhat uncomfortable to us at the time. And yet, the truck driver who had knocked us across three lanes of a highway never stopped, but these strangers had prayed for us, then pulled over to see how they could help, offering comfort to my sister and me and as well as our parents. Regardless of the differences in how we expressed our religious beliefs, these people could not have been kinder or more helpful at a moment when we were all terrified, and my family has obviously never forgotten them. My mother exchanged Christmas cards with them for years after the accident.
It was a perfect example of the basic good in people. When there is a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, or an accident, people tend to turn towards each other, both on the giving and receiving end.
I know that when I am scared, I look to connect with others. It’s why I am very chatty whenever I have a medical appointment. I have a terrible and irrational fear of most things medical, and I’m always hoping a connection with a nurse or doctor will calm me down. It’s also why, when I was awake with insomnia last week and learned at 2 a.m. that the president and his wife had tested positive for COVID, my first instinct was to reach out and talk to people to make sense of this jarring news.
The world feels scary to me right now, and not just because of the pandemic. There is a lot of talk of the potential for violence with the upcoming election. The toxic racial divide continues. Hate groups are blossoming.
There is also a level of vitriol on TV and social media that I find disturbing. There seems to be little thoughtful discussion and mostly people separated into clearly defined groups who rage at each other.
Though I shy away from discussing politics on social media – I don’t see that it changes opinions, and I don’t care for the spewing of bile that often comes with these conversations – I’m also not sitting silently on the sidelines. I tend to stay in a closed feedback loop, watching one cable news channel and bashing politicians in conversations with like minded friends and family.
But between the state of affairs with politics and the pandemic, it’s getting to be too much. It’s been one tumultuous event after the other for a long time now. As a group, it seems increasingly obvious that we all have a need to return to some semblance of balance, calm, and community.
This is probably why a conversation between Trevor Noah and Alexandra Pelosi on The Daily Social Distancing Show resonated with me the other day.
Pelosi has just released a documentary called American Selfie: One Nation Shoots Itself, which deals in part with how Americans view each other. “The conversation has gone to such low points,” she says. “And everybody’s gone so tribal and into their own bubbles. There’s all this hate speech.”
(In fact, it’s gone so tribal that I wondered if the fact that the speaker was Nancy Pelosi’s daughter would cause some people to roll their eyes and discount what she was saying because her mother is a political lightning rod.)
Trevor Noah asked Alexandra Pelosi if she had been able to create her own filter and lens on how she saw the world, in spite of her mother’s position.
“I’ve gone out of my way in the last 30 years as a journalist and filmmaker to go into what they call ‘real America.’ And it was really important for me because I grew up in San Francisco, in sort of the liberal bubble,” she told him.
“The only way I can stay sane is by talking to people who aren’t like me, that don’t believe anything that I believe in, and just trying to give them the benefit of the doubt. I think there are more purple people out there than we’re led to believe by cable news because cable news is in the business of just making us hate each other. Social media is in the business of making us hate each other. So it’s good to go out there and meet people and try to understand where they’re coming from.”
The idea of leaving my bubble – and I own that I exist in one – and trying to understand where people are coming from makes sense to me.
I don’t know exactly how we got to this place in our country where we have split into sides who scream at each other, and there certainly isn’t a simple answer as to how and when things are going to improve. Whatever led us here, it seems to me that talking with people who hold different views from our own and trying to figure where the common ground is instead of avoiding hard conversations altogether is a start. Assuming the other side is the only one who has to examine their views is like agreeing to go to marriage counseling as long as the other person is the one who has to do all the changing.
There seems to be a need for healing right now. Many people are worn out by the turmoil. I know that when I have been in scary situations, turning to other people, especially people who are not anything like me, has reminded me of the kindness people are capable of and helped me through moments that would otherwise have been so much harder.
At the risk of sounding trite, lecture-y, or like I have it all figured out, I am thinking that if we could all leave our bubbles, even just a little bit, things might get a tiny bit better. It feels like we need to start somewhere if we are ever going to return to a place where there is less animosity and more connection.