Recently I had dinner with a friend who raised the following provocative question: “Whatever you think about Kobe Bryant, President Bush, the war in Iraq – what would it take to change your thinking to the other side?” He further suggested that, until I could answer that question, I would likely not be successful in my efforts to change someone else’s opinion.
Two weeks later, I headed off to Alaska for a vacation I had been dreaming about for many years. I told my friends I wanted to see this land while it was still pristine – before large corporations such as Starbucks and Wal-Mart moved in and took over. (By the way, I did find a Starbucks and a Wal-Mart.)
The flight to Anchorage took us over the Alaska Range and majestic Mount McKinley. The breathtaking beauty of these miracles of nature brought tears to my eyes (and to those of many others in the plane). I have always considered myself an environmentalist, believing this planet is a gift and a responsibility. So I devote time, energy and resources to its care. Who in their right mind could argue with that?
We arrived in Anchorage, drove to Seward, took a cruise through the Gulf of Alaska, and visited several glaciers and cities in the southeastern corner of the state. Each city was interesting, beautiful, unique – and economically depressed. Our last stop was at Ketchikan. Our land tour took us to Saxman, a native village that is inhabited by the Tlingit Indians, who still document their lives through totem poles.
As we drove to Saxman, I asked the young cab driver about the apparent economic depression. “I don’t know your politics,” he began hesitantly, “but President Clinton promised to save our forests. In the process, he destroyed our principal industry of logging. My father was 55 years old and had worked for the mill for 30 years when he was laid off last year.” Our cab driver went on to describe his dream of going to college and Seattle to study film production so that he could return to Alaska to tell the story.
I sat in the cab feeling a strange combination of sadness and confusion. They were mixed with another emotion I couldn’t identify right then but felt through my whole being.
Until that moment, whenever environmentally friendly legislation was passed, I applauded. My thinking has always been that if an economy must degrade the environment in order to survive, ultimately it must change its direction and find a different way of supporting itself.
Until I sat in that cab, I did not realize how arrogant my thinking was. I could almost feel my mind opening as I tried to identify with the driver’s father, who is about my age. I tried to imagine what great sadness or hopelessness I would feel. Then I tried to put myself in the place of this 20-year-old man, who had just lost his safety net; I felt anger and a sense of betrayal.
And how did he lose it? He and his community lost their economic stability at the hands of a government they felt wasn’t listening. And now this young man, by wanting to become a filmmaker, was planning to devote his life to simply telling his story. Ultimately, that’s what we all want. We want to have our story heard and understood.
Many years ago, I treated a young woman who was raised by parents who were probably incapable of loving her. When I asked her whether anyone had loved her as a child, her eyes sparkled and she quickly said, “Yes, my uncle loved me.” Continuing, I asked how she knew her uncle loved her. “Because he asked me a lot of questions.” He took the time, interest and compassion to ask questions.
You see, the problem with “knowing the truth” is that it steals our ability to ask questions. Because we already know the answers. Before that encounter with the cab driver, I thought I knew the truth.
And then I identified the emotion that had puzzled me earlier. It was humility. I thought I had a position that was correct. But as I lost confidence in my truth, I felt humility. Humility is the position we take when we ask for help – either divine or human. Sometimes, humility makes us feel great shame or confusion, so we pretend we know what we really don’t know. So in order to avoid these painful emotions, we tell ourselves that we are smarter, have more insight – that “they” don’t get it.
This business of humility certainly doesn’t feel good, but maybe that’s the first step on the path to wisdom. Maybe it’s the only way to open our hearts and minds.
So I still consider myself an environmentalist. And I am not about to contribute to a loggers’ political action committee. But I do feel less right and more open-hearted then I did before.