We attended school together for seven years, members of the same graduating class. We both moved out of West Virginia as adults and settled in metropolitan areas. We both chose service professions—law enforcement for him, teaching for me. We reconnected at a class reunion two years ago and keep in touch through social media. We share a love of Washington football and RGIII, consider our dogs members of our families, and treasure our vacations on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
But politically, we come from different universes instead of the same hometown. And even though we respect each other and value our friendship, we sometimes try to change each other’s opinions. When one of us posts political messages on social media, the other one often comments—though our children tell us this is an exercise in futility. We have never changed the other’s mind, but we respect each other and value our friendship, and we both believe it’s important to talk about politics.
I am a storyteller. And it’s stories rather than facts or unsupported opinions that make me think. I challenged my friend to post stories instead of opinions, and he reminded me that, like me, he has an ethical responsibility not to tell the stories of the people he encounters every day on the job. That leaves us both with only the choice of telling personal stories—more difficult for him than for me because, in addition to my work with students who are often poor, my views are shaped by having grown up poor and having received government help on more than one occasion. His views have been shaped by dealing with criminals every day who abuse the government help they receive and who have learned to manipulate the legal system and avoid paying the price for their abuses—criminals whose stories he must keep to himself.
Yet we have still managed to make each other think. He sometimes laughs at me and calls me Spunky Girl, but he has recently been posting links to the stories of others that he reads in the news. He posted one story about a woman who shot an intruder who broke into her home and threatened her and her children. And while I couldn’t understand how that might justify the right to assault weapons, I can understand the lengths a mother would go to in order to protect her children. Then my friend posted a story about how people who receive assistance are using their government issued cards at ATM machines in bars, liquor stores, strip clubs, and porn shops.
While I don’t particularly care for the news source where he gets these stories, I do know that, just as there are good people who need government assistance, there are also people who do not use the help they receive wisely. Two of my brothers took advantage of my mother’s all-consuming love for them and drained her life’s savings to support their addictions, and one died of an overdose in her guest bedroom. Her love and support could not save him. And my daughter, knowing from watching her uncles that it was never a good idea to give money to the homeless, went into a fast-food restaurant and bought a meal for a homeless man who asked her for money. When she offered the meal to him, he took the meal but cursed her for giving him food when he’d asked for money.
These are stories my friend and I can tell. And when my friend posted the two stories, he reminded me that love and compassion alone cannot save the broken. My father turned his life around when he decided to give up drinking, and though we were still poor, we were not destitute as we were when he drank and gambled every payday weekend.
So what is the answer? I don’t know. I do know that the solutions my friend proposes haven’t worked. Nor have mine. Somehow we have to find a balance between extending compassion and demanding responsibility. Somehow we have to stop operating from the two extremes when the politicians in office shift from one party to another. Somehow our leaders must learn to find a third way that is better than the ways they champion. And, perhaps most of all, we must somehow find a way to support our leaders when they give up a little of what they believe for a third way that just might work better.
And perhaps sharing our stories is a beginning.