Tuesday, November 10, 2009

He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother

I was reminiscing today about a position I had years ago before my family got settled and my office was built into my house. Every other job, before and since, has been frought with politics and "dos and don'ts" and political correctness in every possible sense. This one job was completely different and I don't think I'll ever experience anything like it again.

The department was a mini UN, even for the company I worked for. You could walk into the central office and hear four different languages (at least) going on at one time. More than that, when lunch time rolled around, we'd grab something from the cafeteria and sit around chatting.

About everything you're not supposed to talk about at work: money, religion, and politics.

It gets better: all kinds of people, from all over the world, who otherwise could not get along with each other joined in.

Imagine Israelis sitting with Palestinians; Pakistanis with Indians; Venezuelans with Columbians, talking about international politics with Americans. No blood, no arguments, just earnest and polite interest.

Now imagine devout Jews and Muslims, sitting with Catholics and Protestants chatting about comparative religion, or a religious practice they heard about on TV the previous day. Again, no blood, no arguments.

Finally you had anyone who cared to join in yapping about American special-interest politics: abortion, gay rights, political parties, American history, pick one. We didn't just sit around agreeing with each other either - there was a spectrum of opinions and all expressed them.

I swear to God this actually happened on a regular basis. I have to say that because no one believes me when I describe this scenario. We didn't even need the "Vice President of Diversity" to help us out. In fact we told that guy to take a hike because he was killing our mojo. You should have seen the pot-luck parties we had; bring something from your home country. Comfort food, no matter where it's from, always breaks the ice and brings all kinds of people together. And it was AT WORK!

While reminiscing I tried to figure out why we had such an easy communion. It's not supposed to happen if you talk to random HR people. In spite of all of our differences we had quite a lot in common:
  • Each and every one of us - all of our races, ethnicities, and religions - thought that somebody else was completely, utterly, and totally wrong in their way of thinking or behaviour. No one was willing to compromise what they believed or thought about their own ethics or morality.
  • Each and every one of us was OK with that. No harm, no foul. Think as you please. Welcome to America. No one was made to feel that they had to separate their faith or other personal ethics from their work life.
  • Each and every one of us made the choice to care for others as friends, no matter how drastically different their POVs on whatever issue. It was OK to like someone even if you thought they were doing something wrong (or even committing a major sin - there were a lot of devout people here) as long as no one was committing a crime.
  • Each and every one of us could point to an instance where our ethnicity, race, or religion was misunderstood or maligned in popular culture, or deliberately mischaracterized by the media. We all had extemists and nutjobs in whatever group we identified with but we all knew that was the exception, not the rule. The media and society at large wasn't so forgiving and we all hated it. So rather than assume we knew it all about someone's background, we asked questions. And we answered them. And we accepted the answer, whether we agreed or not. Rather than make rude jokes, we expressed opinions in a way and with timing that let those with a differing one keep their dignity.
  • In short, we were all patient with each other. Acceptance meant that we accepted that our friends and colleagues had every right in the world to not like or agree with what we said or did. Acceptance meant that they didn't have to change that to be a friend. Acceptance meant that we didn't have to be perfect to be liked. There were occasional raw feelings, but we cared enough about each other to apologize if necessary and to work through it.

Our group worked together because all of these sentiments were mutual. No one was singled out as less than another, more equal than others (to paraphrase Orwell) , and no one was deserving of ridicule because someone else of their faith or ethnicity ran off the rails.

I've been thinking about these times lately because I miss them.

Over the years, I've become more timid about expressing my own thoughts and opinions.

"Yeah, right", you're thinking. "What about this blog?"

You don't see my name anywhere, do you? In my personal universe, if you don't have my name, you can't hurt me. I learned that many, many times, especially as the Internet became more entrenched in our lives. So I chose between expressing my opinion, and giving my identity. One is always private, one is always public, depending upon where I am. It's almost like living a double life.

I've gotten comfortable with that duplicity. Is that OK? Or a sign of something wrong? I usually just go about my life and not think about it. Is it dishonest to not tell everything about myself? Or is it just being judicious?

Well, I know I'm not ready to "tell all" yet. Any leaps I take will be little ones.

I'm a conservative Republican and a practicing Catholic. I carry a GOP membership card and I'm married to a 4th degree Knight of Columbus. I voted the McCain/Palin ticket and I think they would do a better job. I look forward to receiving the Sacraments from my pastor and celebrating Holy Days of Obligation.

There, I said it. The first little leap.

Not everyone is going to like or agree with that little confession above. But I'll ask this:

Don't hate me for it. Or assume you know everything about me or how I live because of the above over some sound bite on the 10 PM news. Get to know me as a person with the above qualities first before deciding who I really am. I'm not a soundbite, or a phrase out of the AP style book. I'm not what random strangers assume. Please try to believe that.

I promise, I'll do the same for you.



  1. I think everyone has forgotten what it means to be tolerant and how hard it can be at times to disagree with another point of view and still be accepting of the person behind it. Intolerance is what puts a bad taste in everyone's mouth when it comes to religion and politics. We should all be so blessed to work and live in an environment as you described.

  2. We were very blessed. That environment didn't last forever but the memory and hope of it will.

    You know, I don't even use the word "tolerance" or "tolerant" anymore. Too often, it has been taken to mean "agree with everything I say and do." That ain't the case, folks. I prefer the word "patience". That means being careful how you behave or react, choosing your battles and your words, and choosing to do what is in the best interest of the person in front of you, agree or not.

    God knows I need people to be patient with ME, so I've learned (and decided) to pay the patience forward.

  3. Both of you make very good observations. I was brought up in a bigoted society in Northern Ireland so I know what it's like to be expected to hate and then being made to feel different because I didn't!
    Tolerance and accepting human beings for who they are no matter what their beliefs are is how I live my life. I will disagree and sometimes do feel angry and not wanting to feel generous but underneath it all everyone has something to contribute to our world even though we might not like what it is!
    I know this isn't exactly the same but both my sons play rugby here and despite the fact that it is a physically harsh and sometimes brutal sport you would be amazed to see thousands of rugby fans drinking together at the end of a match, doesn't matter who wins it's the game that counts..long may this sport stay that way!