Frank Discussions

August 23rd, 2011

“Words not only affect us temporarily; they change us, they socialize or unsocialize us.”
- David Reisman, The Lonely Crowd, 1950

My wife and I were invited to join two fun-loving couples for a three-day houseboat venture in northern California. The host/owner turned out to be quite conservative on nearly every controversial issue (whereas I am not). He was physically and intellectually daunting while addressing topics such as gun control and government vs. faith community networking for the poor.

I managed to bond with him early on apart from others when he revealed some personal struggles. We both opened up and became vulnerable while confessing similar conflicts in our lives.

The combative arguments between two more liberal guests and ‘Frank' (that works well for a pseudonym because he was more than frank in our encounter) didn’t surface until the final night. There were moments when some of us thought he might be tempted to kick us off his boat. What I noticed by holding back from joining in on the fray at the outset was the way the views were espoused. Each counterpart seemed to have an impressive yet immediate response after making a point but the exchanges eventually lapsed into a mode of reason-to-reason resistance. Most of us quarrel that way on ardent issues and I’ll admit I’m guilty of it too. I was eager to jump in with my colleagues to counter Frank's positions. Frankly, I envied the passion they expressed. 

When I was asked by a liberal cohort to weigh in on the exchange, I was reluctant, possibly because I felt for Frank. I didn’t feel sorry for him; he was sharp and articulate and holding his own with his views. We had befriended each other at a level of compassion that mattered to us so I refrained from countering his views. When I finally entered into the dialogue and espoused views similar to my colleagues, Frank wavered, backed off a bit, and was silent before making each response. He may have caught that I was hesitant to launch into an argument with him. It’s a subtle and perhaps a minor observation but given my obsession with the need to run deep with strangers, I’ll take it.  

I believe that engaging deeply with adversaries prior to a heated discussion, no matter how brief, could provide a fleeting break from our reasoning faculties. That might be the missing piece in congressional arguments of late. There may be no risky bonding going on between individuals outside the sessions. A recent article on the rigid mood of congress members disclosed that few legislators bring their families to D.C. these days. My hunch is families would mainly support and reinforce the views of their loved ones. 

When I first met Frank, he came across as a physically imposing, impulsive, shirtless character with a bushy cowboy-like mustache. Have you ever met a stranger and felt in the moment you’d likely not want him in your life? Well that was my first instinct in meeting the boat man. It’s probably a guy thing or maybe it’s just my thing. 

But the first time we had a chance to be alone, Frank opened up to me about his personal life and admitted later he did so because I was a minister. After revealing my personal stuff, he confessed I didn’t seem like a pastor. I get that a lot. Within two hours we were sharing at a depth that might have taken several sessions to get to in a counselor’s office.

Our last night out, the big issue that erupted among the guests was over the issue of gun control.

In our brief confidential bond he had revealed with some palpable emotion how much he loved his kids. When I reflected later on why I was hesitant to jump in on the heated gun control discussion between Frank and two other guests, it struck me he might have genuinely feared for his family’s safety if he were forced to give up his weapons. Within that awkward pause, I also recalled the times I went quail hunting with my dad in the Mohave Desert as a kid. My dad was a passionate and proud member of the NRA. Those outings were the best times I ever had with my father. However, I gave up my firearms in my young fatherhood days when I learned of a five-year old who killed his two-year old brother with his dad’s handgun.

Maybe Frank was prepared to argue intellectually with me when I started to come at him on the issue but shifted gears when he sensed in my halting sentiments I was attempting to honor our short-lived union. We had evidently experienced a level of trust that allowed us to not only hear each other's views but feel each other's concerns. I don’t recall ever experiencing such a disruption while discussing controversial matters. We seemed to have given up needing to win the debate by communicating to each other that we were not sure how the heated discourse might turn out. That’s when we can manage to sustain a vibrant, healthy debate. We don’t get there by repressing our deepest source of empathy in the midst of an interchange.

We guests had great fun with Frank. We had a difficult time parting company and promised each other we would stay in touch. But I’ve learned after bonding intensely with strangers it’s hard to re-enter that vulnerable cherished zone. If we’re built to love strangers unconditionally in a first meeting then perhaps we don’t have time to sustain lengthy relationships. Henry Adams may have been a single encounter kind of guy when he mused “One friend in a lifetime is much; two are many; three are hardly possible.”

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