©2019 C. Henry Martens
I think it started with the okra.
Old friends are a precious commodity. Those who grow closer over the years are blessed. There is no doubt of that. But sometimes life gets in the way of maintaining a friendship, much less cultivating closeness.
I hung with an interesting crowd in my early twenties. The first thing that attracted me to them was their sense of humor. In retrospect, it was a “thing” for us to insulate ourselves in a fish bubble containing the gang, where we looked out at the world with superior eyes and made fun of the idiocy of the rest of the world. It was fun, and pretty benign, but the attitude was promulgated on our vision of ourselves as being more intelligent than the rest of the world.
Why did we think we were so special? So outside of the average? Even superior, although all of us would have denied the label? Well, we had a core of intellectual people. Most of them were employed as teachers. To me, these people were a form of bling. Hanging with them gave me some amount of pride.
Over the years we all split off from the group but more or less kept in touch. Some people disappeared entirely, lost to the vagaries of life, growing older, moving, or acquiring new jobs. A couple of friends took the long, final walk. So there was attrition in the group.
But up until yesterday, there were seven of us who had remained faithful in friendship. Four former school system employees, a fifth that is the spouse of one of the teachers, and my wife and I as the sixth and seventh. Now it is down to the five, apparently, because I and my wife have been ousted from the gang. We are no longer acceptable. We are no longer welcome. To be honest, it was me that upset the apple cart, but my wife chooses to stick with me. So now we as a couple upset those with a static comfort zone.
It’s been a long time coming. If I look really hard I can see some cracks in the really early years. But the real wedge in the relationship began with the okra.
There is a clear leader in the gang. A man I’ll call Gavid, the one person other than us not employed by schools, the spouse of one of the teachers. We were pretty good friends at one time.
One of the things good friends share is experience. In this context, Gavid suggested that I try salt and vinegar potato chips. I’m not one to refuse trying something, and if Gavid suggested it, I was easily convinced. So I tried them. In the spirit of friendship I was glad to try them.
My first reaction was less than pleasurable. But I had a whole bag of chips, and they weren’t that bad, so I went ahead and finished the bag over a couple of days. By the time I got to the bottom of the bag I liked them… a lot. I’m really not a potato chip buyer, but if I do purchase a bag of chips for some kind of special occasion I often buy salt and vinegar chips.
So what has that to do with okra?
Well, in trying the chips, I wanted to reciprocate. I wanted to share an experience with Gavid. Something as unusual as those oddball chips. Something we could have as a mutual experience not shared by many in the world. To enforce our special bond against the masses of the world.
Now if you know anything about okra, you know that it is slimy. I mean, it is filled with some really noxious goo. Nothing that makes it taste bad, but something that is so texturally uncomfortable that most people won’t persist until they learn to ignore the slime and appreciate the flavor. The slime is so objectionable that most okra eaten is prepared in ways to minimize or mask the yuck factor.
But this slimy stuff isn’t what I was offering Gavid. No… I was offering him pickled okra, an entirely different animal. The one kind of okra that isn’t slimy enough to be called slimy… A concoction that is very similar in the context of being similar to salt and vinegar chips. Because Gavid had suggested the chips, I really thought he would like the pickled okra.
But Gavid cut me off at the knees with an immediate refusal. I pushed the offer in a (I thought) good-natured way, “Oh c’mon, give it a try,” and Gavid was suddenly set in concrete, immovable. It appeared that he was uncharacteristically offended (At least to me it seemed unusual).
Well, that’s his right, so I backed off. Maybe not as quickly as I remember it now, but surely in no way I would have found offensive myself. Done deal. No harm, no foul. Or was it?
I don’t remember the context, but Gavid brought it up much later, long after I thought the incident was over. I tried to explain my faux pas so he would understand how benign the whole situation was from my perspective. Gavid cut me off and refused to listen. He was insulted. He had decided to be insulted.
The last time we were at Gavid and his wife’s home, driving a couple of thousand miles round trip for a Thanksgiving with good friends, something similar happened. I offered his schoolteacher wife something, and they immediately had their hackles up. Apparently the phrase, “You sure you don’t want some?” is forbidden in their house. At least from me.
So I have always known that Gavid is sensitive to certain things. The entire group knows this, and we’ve always accommodated him. Perhaps this has led him to be less introspective and more critical of the rest of us. He’s never been reticent about being judgmental of us. Snide remarks are his preferred brand of humor, a way to guide us without confrontation. The appearance that he projects to the world is that he knows what we don’t, and he thinks we should know these secret things by merely associating with him. He’s gotten so used to our adulation that he can’t be criticized without feeling threatened.
Look, we’re all flawed. I won’t pretend to be that which I am not. Am I intense? I believe I can be. More than some people find comfortable. Do I want people to see things my way? Only in that I want people to consider all options. Could I be better? I actively practice introspection as a part of active open-mindedness, so yeah, I could be better.
So Gavid, this flawed guy, is the one that everyone in the group looks to for legitimacy. If he thinks something is wrong or right, no one in the group is allowed to speak against him in any serious way. He will also make a point of denying his position within the group. His being humble is a big deal to him. IMO, an attempt at false humility, or maybe he doesn’t even recognize his power (but I doubt it).
So fast forward to this last week.
The school shootings are a hot button subject for teachers. Just like my friends, I agonize over why they happen, what legitimate causes can be identified, and we all spend a lot of mental energy on finding some kind of effective solution. Except long ago, my friends quit searching in favor of the easiest answer. The emotionally satisfying answer that creates another, worse danger (my opinion).
Over the last few years a political divide has emerged within the group, and even though we agree on ninety percent of issues, there is a split about how we approach solutions… and what constitutes legitimate concern or strategies.
Let me say again… we agree on ninety percent of political issues.
But I cross the aisle to investigate the way things are perceived, how issues are recognized in importance, why people feel the way they do, and what approaches differ one from the other. As I have found value in the “other”… I have become an “other” in the eyes of my friends.
Where the rest of the gang never really appreciated my intellect because they all had degrees they were proud of, or were the superior “one,” my very act of considering alternative information has been threatening them. They never gave me much credit for what I bring, even when my experiences have value.
I’d mention something interesting every once in a while, some tidbit that offered a different way to think, but they didn’t want to hear it, so I’d leave it alone. At least at first. But the farther I traveled down the rabbit hole, the less I could contain myself.
There are some significant splits in how humans look at the world. Some people want the world to be the way they wish. Those people are idealists, and often make decisions emotionally. They have a desire to fix everything, which is laudable, but often endorse solutions that miss the real criteria that is causing the problem. They’ll paint right over rotten boards for immediate satisfaction and call the repair good. Oddly, they can be meticulous in their personal physical universe, not recognizing how their social world view is not as easily controlled. And they can be on both sides of the aisle politically.
On the other hand there are realists. They tend to be contemptuous of emotion and try to avoid it. Realists want to identify the issues accurately and provide a permanent fix. They like to tear the rotten wood away so they can replace it. But often the rotten wood being torn away results in finding repairs that the realist isn’t prepared for, and they get discouraged. Sometimes they can’t see how repairs can be made due to expense. Realists can get in over their heads. And they can be on both sides of the aisle politically.
I like to think I’m a decent combination. I try hard to see things from both perspectives.
So I took the red pill, and I was learning something useful in the issues of school shootings and gun control. I offered it to the group.
I had been offering alternative views to two of the gang for the last several years, one in particular. Suggesting not as much conclusions as perspectives they have never explored. Sometimes the alternative information I offered supported their own agenda, and sometimes it was meant to shake their intellectual foundations. The one that would bother to respond, to engage instead of hit and run, Katie had proven to be completely intractable. Our conversations often led to frustration on both our parts, and it seemed to me that as my logic became stronger and her arguments less defensible, she turned to emotional pleas for understanding and acceptance rather than providing legitimate argument. Katie did this often. The strategy became disturbing as she had been employed as a social worker, someone who counseled troubled youth in a school setting for a living. Being proud of her profession, manipulation came easily to her. It often appears that she feels entitled, and when she doesn’t get her way, she pouts. I used to let her get away with it, but I’ve grown up since then. More than one person in the group has recognized the manipulation and entitlement and pointed it out to me as intended humor.
Katie’s primary argument became that being part of the group, thinking like the group, was more important than exploring for a valid point of view. Let me say that again, Katie tried to convince me that it was better to agree with the acceptable ideas endorsed by the group than to consider what might be the truth. George Orwell would be horrified, and so was I.
The idea of compliance to herd-think is so counter to reason to me that it was difficult to perceive it as anything but immaturity. I can’t remember hearing that kind of argument since getting out of junior high school.
I pointed this out several times to Katie, and she seemed to double down instead of realizing that she was driving the wedge in farther. She accused me of driving the wedge. She accused me of a lot of things she was actually doing herself. But we both had a mallet to drive the wedge.
It all came to a boil.
The fact is that in all political issues, there are legitimate elements on both sides. I would be hard pressed to find any issues where both political parties can’t contribute legitimate information and evidence.
Let me say again… these people, friends (and by extension all people), share a common goal, to protect children, the nation, the future. It does not matter where kids are, whether inner city, out in the country, or in a school setting, we all share this in common.
I see it as a moral imperative to investigate ALL information. To consider ALL evidence. To refrain from reaching any conclusions until I have ALL factors at my disposal. Even then, conclusions are fluid as new information presents.
But my friends refused to consider what I had to offer. They treated me like the enemy, even though I have tried to demonstrate vehemently that we agree on every goal. They threatened me with excommunication as a friend if I didn’t come to the same conclusions as them, to use the same evidence they accept and no other.
But the final straw was when Katie threatened my wife, by my wife’s association with me. Saying that if I wouldn’t join them in their thinking that I would cause not just my own excommunication from the group… but also my wife being shunned.
You, my former friends, have demonstrated to me the exact reasons this nation has sunk into a quagmire.
Forty years of give and take, overlooking each other’s faults, and accommodating each other’s foibles… All spit on because the five people preaching diversity can’t even consider anything but what they find acceptable.
I could blame it on the okra, but the big difference is that I would feel privileged to try your salt and vinegar chips.