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In my late teensOur thought experiment for the week: draw on your own memories of a simple human encounter — unlikely relationships with non-like-minded people — that you may not have pondered as formative and important.

Listen to Anthony Appiah’s story — recounted in the audio above (mp3, 1:17) — about his neighbor. Before he became a renowned philosopher, he described himself as a “lefty” kid who became very fond of a “right-wing” neighbor and member of British Parliament despite their very disparate views. And it was luck that brought the pair together.

How might we encourage or inspire these kinds of encounters in our own lives, or for our children? Share your thoughts here and let’s talk about these chance encounters together.

And for those of you who prefer to read it rather than hear it, here’s the transcript:

“One of the great lessons of my childhood of which I’m extremely grateful for was that, when my grandmother got older, she moved from the bigger house that she lived in into the cottage next door and she sold the big house to a man who was a member of the British Parliament and was very right-wing, but extremely nice and very nice to me.

You know, I had a subscription to the Soviet News and the Peking Review. I was a young lefty, but he was incredibly nice to me. He was not only nice, but he was willing to talk to me about politics and he was willing to let an 18-year-old whatever I was — young man — talk to him about politics and say things that he obviously thought were, you know, and he told me what he thought. He was frank. I mean, he didn’t pretend to believe things that he didn’t believe.

I learned a lot. I had to admit that I liked this guy even though I thought he was wrong about everything, and that was luck. It was luck that I had that experience when I was young.”

About the image above: Anthony Appiah in his late teens circa the time he met his new neighbor. (courtesy of Anthony Appiah)


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22 Comments

Having been raised by deeply prejudiced people in a part of the US where that was typical, I found myself as a young woman, in the mid-1960s, age 19-20, living and working in Los Angeles on the nightshift for a large company, where I was for weeks at a time the only white person in the room. All the justifications I had been taught as reasons for social and racial inequalities were exposed as lies. My co-workers were smarter than I was, worked harder and faster than I could, had healthier family lives, stronger community connections, greater personal ambitions and more commitment to achieve their goals, had personally suffered from the chronic and particular injustices of racism, and were only friendly and warm to me. I don't know how I was so fortunate to be in their company at such an educable and transforming time in my life, but I am ever grateful.

Thirty years ago, I was a young feminist artist working on a pro-choice activist art project. In a community center, an older male artist saw me struggling with inadequate tools and offered to help. As we carried my materials to his well-equipped shop, he calmly mentioned that he was against abortion, and therefore, everything my group and project were working for. I always wondered why he helped. Just a fellow artist? The neighborliness of the studio building? Paternalism towards a younger artist?

I was about 20 when this happened. In the early-70s in Cleveland, not long after the civil rights riots had burned the Hough area, I wanted to go to the ballet. Without a car, I got a lift to the theater, which was in the Hough area. My friends advised me not to go unless I had a ride both ways, but I felt perfectly comfortable going to a Sunday matinee and taking the bus home. I took the bus to work everyday. After the show, I walked a few blocks to the bus stop. As I approached a black man began to rant at me, telling me that I had no right to be there because I was white. He was angry and threatening. I was beginning to become afraid, when I saw the bus coming to save me. It stopped, the doors opened and I got on. I dropped my money in the coin box and turned. The bus was full, and everyone was black. They looked, I guess, surprised. I felt consipicuous, but no longer afraid because I could see the same expression on their faces as those of my friends who had advised me to get a lift both ways. I recall that a man got up and offered me a seat. I felt like a belonged again. Empathy is a powerfully good emotion.

I was 18 when I got on a greyhound bus that took me from my family's central Wisconsin dairy farm to the Grand Rapids Michigan Job Corps. I hadn't been told that the majority of the kids there were black and from Detroit. I had never known anyone who was nonwhite before. The first night I spent in my room with three black roommates, I thought they would kill me. After a few days, we all got along and became friends. I spent a year there and had many friends who had grown up very differently than I had. It was an invaluable lesson in life, to see and appreciate people beyond the culture I had grown up in. Still today, I feel respect for other people even though their lives seem so different from mine. There is a core human connection that we all have, that surpasses our differences.

I was doing a Spnaish immersion course in a university in Madrid. I was in my mid-30s and was working on my doctorate in psychology. I was studying Spanish just because I loved it. The immersion students were housed in college dorms. I found that many of the other students were elementary and high school Spanish teachers from across the US, but mostly from the middle of the country. Most of them a decade older than myself. We all bonded well together, going on cultural outings, eating, drinking, swimming. I came out as a lesbian in a matter-of-fact way, as conversations became more personal in our social groups. I am from NYC and being gay, especially among academics in a university setting, is so common-place as to be unremarkable. I never expected to encounter homophobia in that setting. However, upon coming out, i was treated differently, a little coldly. One of my classmates told me she felt uncomfortable with my sexual orientation. I still socialized with these folks, though. Little by little, they warmed up again. One woman told me she was particularly disturbed because her own daughter had just come out to her. There was some hesitancy between us, yet we were drawnnot going to pull away. We wanted to connect across the gulf, and we did, even though it was a little strained. It was not easy to stay engaged yet it was worth it for both of us, I believe, as we began to very judiciously express our experiences, not fully embracing each other, but neither turning our backs.

Magnanimous is a beautiful word that we rarely have any opportunity to use with earnestness. A truly magnanimous human being is so extraordinarily rare that most reserve this quality for a few 'special people'-a few select prophets- and we are merely content to worship and revere them.

I too had been rooted in this limited perspective until seven years ago when I was personally introduced for the first time to a truly magnanimous human being. When I first met Sadhguru I felt ‘This can’t be real!” And it seems to be a common skepticism. ‘How can it be possible that a person can give of themselves in such an enormous way...with no pretense?...with no ulterior motive?’ Now I realize what a sad statement that makes about the current state of human society--a grossly distorted commercialized atmosphere.

Watching and learning from someone who lives with a sense of absolute responsibility--who sees every situation with a 'the buck stops here' mentality is very intimidating but also exhilirating. Sadhguru is always pushing me to broaden my perception, my compassion. Once I was complaining to him because I couldn't get a group I was managing to do what I needed done. He said with a giggle, "Oh, so noone is listening to YOU--who's responsibility is that?" Another time I was bemoaning some action someone had taken that I felt was deeply wrong. He answered, "So someone has done something which society thinks is 'wrong'. Maybe it's dead wrong. Does this mean you'll have no love for him, no compassion for him?" I felt both two inches tall and instantly liberated by this statement.

Now I live my whole life centered around one pressing question, which he asked of me 7 years ago that rings in my head every day, 'Maybe your hands are small, maybe what you can do is very limited, but shall you make yourself also small? Within yourself, are you capable of holding all beings as yours? Can you be a mother to all the life on this planet?'

I was in a grad class at St. Joseph's University some years ago, and near the end the teacher asked if I would be interested in teaching a class next term. The assigned instructior would not be able to be there. I stated I would give it some thought and get back to her next week, she knew I had background to do it and saw something I refused to see in myself.
My hesitation was that I had been a lifelong stutterer, and this seemed anathema to me.
With much trepidation I agreed, believing that God gave me this opportunity . I was able to get through it, and a window was opened for me.
I do believe this was an epiphany for me.
Dr. Gene F

I was born and raised in the U.S. and married an Italian man more than 20 years ago. We live in Italy, and adopted our son from Mali, West Africa.
We were returning to Italy from Mali, having successfully completed the adoption process, sleepy boy in our arms...we were catching an 11:30 pm flight. As we went through the passport control and felt the eyes of Mali officials observing our newly-formed family, I wondered what they were thinking. I felt uncomfortable.

And then the official asked for our passports - one Italian, one U.S., and one from Mali. "Ah," he said, smiling, "a family with three passports. How wonderful!"
And we all beamed.

Six years ago I went to India to meet my future in-laws. I was nervous because I didn't know what Indians were like, even though I had dated one for three years. While there my the biggest realization was that Indians are like Americans. Mothers love their children. Fathers are proud of their children's accomplishments. Siblings enjoy seeing each other. Uncles and Aunts and delighted to be visited by nieces and nephews. Babies bring joy. Mom's cooking is the best, no matter how old you get or how far you've traveled. Getting your parents' approval for big decisions is important. I am blessed with an extended family in India that loves me and our children without regard for nationality or country of residence.

Nicely stated, Elizabeth.

A few years ago, I, a very liberal Democrat, joined a Free Evangelical Church in Knoxville, TN. I was attracted to the church initially by the music (surprisingly, a very talented rock band that played for 30 minutes during the service) and I found the sermons of the very tolerant, intellectual pastor most compelling. During a one-on-one discussion with the pastor, I admitted that the last thing in the world I wanted to be was an evangelical Christian! I totally disagreed with their position on gays, on a woman's right to choose, on politics, etc. He laughed and told me to just go with my heart, my search for God, and to leave the rest behind. I followed his wise advice and found much to love in the church: their commitment to serving the poor of the city, their sense of community and care for each other, and eventually their acceptance of me -- as I was, with my strong political views, but also with my honest desire to grow in my understanding and love of God. Our spiritual quest gave us a common ground and I have to say that I have never felt more love, respect, and acceptance than with that caring group of people. I have since moved away, but I count the people in that church as friends for life and our acceptance of one another, which at first seemed so impossible, one of the greatest learning experiences of my life.

10 years ago I shared a large ranch house with 3 others, all like me, single, and in their 40's. They were all republican or right-leaning and as we learned about each other they quickly seized on my liberal views as fodder for teasing. One of them, an account rep for a marine supplies distributor, could be very funny. He spoke in character voices, made up shockingly lewd jokes, and made the rest of us laugh a lot. He used to make fun of my food because I was the only one in the house who cooked. "Oh, you crunchy granola people," he would say,"Gotta have all that organic bulls**t."  

But I had a good come back. "No! Not organic" I would shout. "Orgasmic!"

"Oh yeah, " i would moan suggestively. "Does it for me every time!" He loved it, and the exchange became an became an oft repeated ritual.

The longer I lived there the more we liked each other, even though politically we were in opposite camps.

I was born in California and lived in the very progressive, diverse Bay Area until I was ten.  At that point my parents, both from the rural Midwest, decided that they wanted their kids to have an upbringing more similar to their own, and they moved us to rural Nebraska.  I had been fully immersed in the anti-war, pro-Civil Rights culture of my childhood environment, and it was a shock to me to hear racist and pro-war pronouncements; one uncle of mine, watching Aretha Franklin perform on television, said: "Look at that monkey sing!"  I was aware enough to be deeply shocked.  I started to speak my mind more and more, calling people out on homophobia, discrimination, and other forms of hatred.  I couldn't wait to get out of there.  But as I grew older, I recalled the kindness of many of the people I grew up with.  They were often generous and kind to me, despite our deep divisions and my "smart mouth."  They believed in helping each other in misfortune, working hard, having fun.  There were no significant class differences there, no significant wealth (well, aside from Warren Buffett, who lived in Omaha in any case).  My parents and one brother's family still live there, and I go back regularly with my son, who has been brought up in the San Francisco Bay Area, as I was.  I have spoken to him about the ambiguities of life as I see them: the loving and giving Sunday school teacher whom everyone loved, but who would say incredibly hateful things about the Sioux (her excuse? she had been brought up near a reservation in South Dakota...)  The generous and funny grandmother who gets angry when abortion is mentioned ("it's murder!") and who has a hard time tolerating homosexuals (her son, my brother, was sexually abused by a man when my brother was seven).  Figuring out the good in people (why are they angry and fearful?) and drawing it out has been a kind of ongoing project.  Figuring out the hard and unforgiving places in myself is part of the project too.  And when I think of how my father has transformed his life, from being in some cases narrow and bigoted to working with Mexican immigrants, learning some Spanish in his sixties, establishing a Spanish-speaking daycare, English classes, a housing and immigration office, a center for battered women, a suicide hot-line... all without a college degree --  it's just plain miraculous.  Miracles happen through listening, paying attention, empathizing, and acting.  I will never dismiss the "red states" out of hand as my neighbors here in the Bay Area do.

my dad and I have different religious beliefs. My dad and I are the same religion but he believes in it moor than I do. Like at dinner we say graces but like I don't like 2  cuz I don't believe in it as much so I don't feel confutable saying grace like thay do

Marilyn's beliefs are very different from mine because she is very religious and she goes to church every Sunday and Tuesday. I stopped going to church after I got confirmed from confirmation last year. I used to go every Sunday, Marilyn still continues to go to church every week and she believes that God is very important. I pray just like her but I don't go to youth group or Church. I got confirmed but she continued going to religion and going to church after she graduation roman catholic education. We are still are very good friends and have been for 6 years now.

One time I meet a man that was 6 foot and he believe that thjetswere the greatest team in the NFL but for me I like the giants

This article made me realize that you can learn from other people's beliefs rather then being racist to other because they're different. I believe that people can be friends even if they have different beliefs, I believe that other people should have the freedom to believe in anything

This article made me realize that you can learn from others beliefs rather than being racist to them because they're different. I believe that people with different beliefs should have the freedom to believe in whatever they want to believe in

I enjoyed this article. I think that if people have different beliefs they can get a long. For example in some situations I don't agree with my friends. It doesn't mean I don't want to be friends with them anymore. You can learn to settle your differences and you can learn something from them.

I have many beliefs, one of them being equality to every single person in America. I think it's so unreal that America has come so far but is still unjust. In a few words, I am talking about gay rights. I believe that we should all be treated with the same amount of respect and should be given equal opportunities, such as marriage. Sadly, a friend of mine has completely different beliefs and is considered "homophobic". Being friends, she is a big part of my life, and even though we may have different beliefs, we work through our differences to keep our friendship. Staying friends with someone with different beliefs is difficult, you want so badly to change their mind and for them to see things the way you do, but you can't. It's impossible, and the fact that we're still friends shows how strong our friendship really is. To be able to put up with each other despite our differences shows how respectful we are of each other and how much we respect each others opinions/beliefs.

I live for the moments in life, the chance encounters with total strangers, to connect, share, and give each other room to be who we are. The explosion of ideas, color, growth, mutual appreciation. That's what floats my boat, gives me courage to keep going. Enriches to connect with others even just for one sparkly moment. Those are the treasures and jewels in my life.