Father’s Day – a Reflection on Understanding Others

Mom and DadI love my dad, but we really don’t agree about much. We don’t agree on politics; don’t share the same religion, or like the same music, or enjoy the same food. Actually, we both like salmon and barbecued ribs but the way he likes them prepared sort of drives me crazy. We don’t even get each others jokes. His to me seem a little corny. Mine to him are just a bit too ribald.

A while back we had a disagreement about word choice in a piece I wrote, with him thinking I had insulted something he holds dear and me thinking he was reading too much into it. Neither of us apologized or changed our minds. That’s our way; we don’t meet in the middle we just agree to disagree and it works for us.

That brings me to a story. When I was about 8 years old and we were living in Austin I saw my Dad strike up a conversation with a stranger who was severely handicapped. The man was in a wheelchair and he had the distinctive gnarled hands and tilted head of a person afflicted with Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS.

Upon seeing the man’s condition I was struck with trepidation, the peculiar fright some children have of disability. My father approached him and said something. The man replied but I could not understand him, nor could my dad. The man’s head bobbed and his hands waved and his garbled words were completely alien to me. It was the late ‘70s and prior to the advent of ALS speech assistance technology.

My father leaned down to him and asked him to repeat himself. The man did and my father sounded out some words and replied back, sort of guessing at their meaning. This exchange happened several times, and I grew embarrassed at the public awkwardness and difficulty of the conversation. In retrospect I wish that I had been friendly and am puzzled by and sorry for my discomfort.

My father kept talking, eventually befriending the man and seeking out him out regularly. I was in his company often and regret that I do not remember his name. We had dinner with him in his small apartment at least once. On that occasion I felt as abashed there as I had at witnessing their earlier meeting. My father was at ease despite the difficulties communicating.

I have known few people who would go out of their way to befriend someone very unlike themselves and even fewer who would work though major communications challenges to do that. Even now with ALS speech assistance technology that is much improved I suspect most people will not make the effort to talk to someone so afflicted. I wonder how lonely and isolating it must have been and must still be to be ignored while others around you converse and form relationships with ease. Its an issue that has profound bearing on people without disability as well.

We live in poisonously polarized times where many people seem to seek relationships only with others like them, with whom they already share race, religion, politics and social class. Few indeed seek out those who are different than themselves just to get to know them. I’m certain our nation would be stronger if more people reached out in a spirit of genuine friendship.

America is increasingly diverse in race, religion, social status, and language. Diversity can bring unique strengths, a wider perspective, and creative solutions. Diversity can also bring fear of change, suspicion of people not like one’s self, and conflict.  It seems to me that the only way to achieve diversity’s benefits and avoid its perils is to be willing to get to know people who aren’t like you.

My father and I have had more than our share of miscommunication and disagreement over the years. We both have strong opinions and aren’t afraid to share them. We are both stubborn and our differences have strained our relationship at times. But I am willing to attempt communication, to talk to people who are not like me and to listen to them. I’m not always good at it and the truth is sometimes I fail to even try. But the ability and willingness I have to do so is precious to me and I know where I got it from.

Thanks dad.

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