I am by nature a wanderer. I love heading out to new places and being enriched by people I meet along the way. My favorite travel activity is to walk, walk without a map or downloaded directions on my phone…just walk and see where I end up and who I meet. I share Mark Twain’s opinion on the subject:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on this account. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of (other people) and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all of one’s lifetime.”
On my 2010 journey around the world I had many illuminating experiences, none more so than a visit to the Andheri slum in Mumbai, India. A local youth worker I met took me to a gathering of young boys and girls in Andheri who were as anxious to meet an American as I was to meet them. After a 90-minute conversation, Amina, a girl who I guess was around 12, approached me and asked if she could introduce me to her mother and grandmother. We walked together to a water pump where several women with containers were waiting to get their family’s supply of water, which was turned on for only a couple of hours.
Meeting Amina’s Mother
When I met Amina’s mother she invited me to their home, where three generations (five adults and I am not sure how many children) lived in a crowded but meticulously clean “house.” After a conversation (interpreted by the youth leader) I was asked to stay for a meal. I knew that I was being offered what was probably the only nourishment they had available for the entire family, so I declined with an awkward excuse. So instead, she said, she wanted to present me with a gift. Her son approached with a baby chicken, placed it in my hands (see picture above) and told me that if I cared for it would give me all the eggs I need to be healthy and strong.
I told her that I couldn’t take the chick because I was traveling and the airline would not permit me to take it on board. Instead, I suggested, that she and I bless the chick, each of us offering a prayer from our religious practice. As she placed her hands on mine, we both prayed for a long and fruitful life for the chick and for her family. It was a deeply moving encounter that has had a lasting effect on me. There I was, an American man who lived in relative affluence, bonding with a mother of four who lived in what would be considered in my country as abject poverty. However, I came to understand that while she was poor by American standards, there was an amazing richness to her spirit of hospitality.
Later that evening I was picked up at my hotel by a Mumbai businessman and his wife. They took me to the Polo Club for a sumptuous dinner, and the contrast with my day’s experience was extreme and illuminating. When I returned to the hotel I reflected on the formal “hospitality” of the wealthy business owner and the informal, spontaneous, from the heart, and natural welcome I received from Amina and her family. To this day I hold that experience as an encounter in which my uninformed narrow-mindedness was expanded by an unmerited gift of hospitality.
Switching Gears: Back to American Politics
On Thursday of last week, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez said that before Democrats buy into a proposed compromise in the infrastructure bill they should ponder some crucial questions:
“Are we passing the deal that helps working people the most? Are we passing the deal that makes the most jobs? Are we passing the deal that brings down the most climate emissions? Are we passing the deal that raises wages and actually improves our infrastructure for the next generation?
“If a bipartisan deal sucks up trillions of dollars in bridges to nowhere because it makes people feel good, then that’s going to be a huge concern…We need to make sure that we are creating economic opportunities for people who are ignored in this country.” Her fear is that the president and some Democrats are emphasizing process over a just, fair and transforming product.
Thoughtful but Skeptical
She is correct: Democrats need to be thoughtful and skeptical. There is ample reason to be suspicious of any deal Republicans buy into. Their dominating right wing politics demands a NO vote from their members on anything less than 100% adherence to a single-minded approach to a far-right ideology.
But, given that caution, my experience tells me that the process of dialogue and compromise is essential to the health of a vibrant democracy. Before rejecting it in a jerk of the knee, Democrats should seek to understand what the motives are of the Republicans who are proposing compromise. This only happens when we listen to and try to understand what drives them; and, this only happens as a result of an honest dialogue in which both sides listen deeply to the other’s point of view. This means listening for the purpose of understanding rather than for the purpose of forming a contrary argument.
Bill Jamieson’s career has included leadership positions in business, government, and education. He was also an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church and his ministry centered around advocacy for low-income families and children.