Life les­son from an un­likely source

Waikato Times - - Comment & Opinion - TOD ROB­BER­SON Opinion

The Com­plaints De­part­ment opens the in­stant I un­lock my of­fice door. Some­times the calls start even be­fore I’ve sat down at my desk. The sound of my voice­mail greet­ing is like an in­vi­ta­tion for call­ers to shout and hurl de­hu­man­is­ing in­sults.

In late Septem­ber, an el­derly woman I’ll call ‘‘Jo G’’ left me a voice­mail mes­sage ask­ing if we could dis­cuss Don­ald Trump. I girded my­self for bat­tle and called her back. Things got in­stantly com­bat­ive.

Why are you al­ways crit­i­cis­ing the pres­i­dent, she asked. Why don’t you give him credit for any­thing? Why won’t you give him a chance?

I was calm but firm: Our edi­to­ri­als crit­i­cise Trump be­cause he is un­civil and has yet to demon­strate fit­ness for the of­fice. He doesn’t apol­o­gise for his mis­takes. His ill-con­sid­ered tweets bring shame upon the pres­i­dency.

As for our op-ed pages, I told Jo G that I’ve scoured our syn­di­cated of­fer­ings for con­ser­va­tive writ­ers will­ing to praise Trump. There are none. Con­ser­va­tives like Ge­orge Will, Charles Krautham­mer and Michael Ger­son have noth­ing nice to say about Trump.

Still, Jo G didn’t like all the vit­riol. You need to lighten up, she said. So I asked her: Can you name me three things that Trump has done that are wor­thy of our praise?

Long pause. I pressed her: Come on, now. You’re the one de­mand­ing that we say pos­i­tive things about Trump. What should we say?

More hes­i­ta­tion. So I poked and jabbed, in­sist­ing that she give me an an­swer.

Jo G be­came flus­tered. Sud­denly, she broke down cry­ing.

‘‘I can’t think of any­thing right now. My hus­band is in the hospi­tal and he’s dy­ing! I just want you to say some­thing nice!’’

She hung up.

I looked at the hand­set for a long time, feel­ing like a jerk. I paced the room, try­ing to calm down. I knew I had to call this woman back, but what could I say? I picked up the re­ceiver and hit ‘‘re­dial.’’ She picked up.

‘‘I’m re­ally sorry about how that con­ver­sa­tion ended,’’ I said. ‘‘You clearly have a lot more press­ing things on your mind right now than what we pub­lish on our opinion pages. So what if we just set that is­sue aside and talk about what’s re­ally im­por­tant in your life right now? Do you want to talk about your hus­band?’’

She did. So we had a good, long talk. This time, I didn’t in­ter­rupt or pon­tif­i­cate or seek some kind of in­tel­lec­tual ad­van­tage. I just lis­tened. When Jo G was done talk­ing, I told her she could call me any­time she wanted. No ar­gu­ing. We’d just talk.

A few days later, a card ar­rived in the of­fice mail, say­ing ‘‘Thank You’’ in four dif­fer­ent lan­guages along with a won­der­ful, hand­writ­ten note from Jo G up­dat­ing me about her hus­band’s con­di­tion (get­ting worse) and re­it­er­at­ing the im­por­tance of find­ing ‘‘good things’’ to say about other peo­ple.

Re­cently on pub­lic ra­dio, I heard a TedX talk by Me­gan Phelps-Roper, for­merly of the West­boro Bap­tist Church in Topeka, Kan. She used to be one of those pro­test­ers hold­ing hate­ful signs like ‘‘God Hates Fags’’ at the funer­als of US ser­vice mem­bers.

Hav­ing grown up in the West­boro fam­ily, Phelps-Roper had never known any other life. She never ques­tioned the church credo that all out­siders were in Satan’s em­brace.

One day, though, she had a sort of epiphany. Why had she had never ac­tu­ally lis­tened to any­thing that nonWest­boro peo­ple were say­ing? The more she thought about it, she said, ‘‘I couldn’t jus­tify our ac­tions – es­pe­cially our cruel prac­tice of protest­ing funer­als and cel­e­brat­ing hu­man tragedy.’’

She said that Amer­i­cans to­day ‘‘cel­e­brate tol­er­ance and di­ver­sity more than at any other time in mem­ory, and still we grow more and more di­vided. We want good things – jus­tice, equal­ity, free­dom, dig­nity, pros­per­ity – but the path we’ve cho­sen looks so much like the one I walked away from four years ago. We’ve bro­ken the world into us and them, only emerg­ing from our bunkers long enough to lob rhetor­i­cal grenades.’’

We are all so busy gird­ing for bat­tle and go­ing on the at­tack that we’ve stopped lis­ten­ing un­less the other per­son marches in lock­step with our own opin­ions and val­ues. We’ve learned to be mean as a knee-jerk re­sponse to an­tic­i­pated mean­ness.

Jo G and Phelps-Roper are right: Amer­i­cans must fig­ure out a way to ratchet-down the anger and be­come bet­ter lis­ten­ers.

I hadn’t heard from Jo G in awhile, so I phoned her re­cently just to see how things were go­ing. Sadly, her hus­band had died the day af­ter she mailed that card to me. Think about it. Even while en­gulfed in grief and cri­sis, with her world crum­bling around her, Jo G had sat down to write me that nice card.

We’ve never met, but I’ve re­served a big place in my heart for her. I’ll gladly make the time to talk – and lis­ten – when­ever she feels the need.

PHOTO: REUTERS

West­boro-Bap­tist Church mem­bers mes­sage of hate is im­pos­si­ble to jus­tify, says Me­gan Phelp­sRoper who walked away from the church.

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