“I think, therefore I am is the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothaches. I feel, therefore I am is a truth much more universally valid, and it applies to everything that’s alive. My self does not differ substantially from yours in terms of its thought. Many people, few ideas: we all think more or less the same, and we exchange, borrow, steal thoughts from one another. However, when someone steps on my foot, only I feel the pain. The basis of the self is not thought but suffering, which is the most fundamental of all feelings. While it suffers, not even a cat can doubt its unique and uninterchangeable self. In intense suffering the world disappears and each of us is alone with his self. Suffering is the university of egocentrism.”
― Milan Kundera, Immortality
Earlier this year I returned to Santa Fe to visit friends and soak up the uniqueness of the city and landscape I once lived in. While there my friend Bill offered to take me shooting with another friend of his. New Mexico still retains some of the vestiges of the old west and one of those is a love for guns. Sport shooting is something I’ve done a few times and each time I find it enlightening in the ways it makes tangible the danger and attraction inherent in handling a gun. That following Monday we departed his house with a lawyer friend of his and drove south with a car load of guns and ammunition.
We arrived at ramshackle ranch on the eastern plains of New Mexico, a place where the horizon seems a million miles way. Entering the long and winding driveway adjacent a series of rotting barns and an old water tank was an unfamiliar jeep. It turns out an NRA instructor was visiting our host and was also there with a friend of his to shoot on the makeshift range. He was dressed in fatigues and was holding a pistol when he greeted us, along with his friend and our wheelchair bound host. Our host it turned out was Vietnam veteran, an ex-marine whose refrigerator was peppered with bumper stickers with phrases like, “pacifism is a luxury paid for by warriors”. Normally this entire scenario would give me pause being the Taoist, liberal, artist that I am, but I trusted my guide and chose to give everyone there the benefit of the doubt. Despite the dangerous array of rifles and pistols the NRA instructor was insistent on a serious air of safety which set me completely at ease.
Although politics never directly entered our conversation that morning we found plenty of things that overlapped between us even though I’m quite certain there was at least one Trump supporter in the room. Our host was wheelchair bound and not terribly healthy but he was a sweet and gentle soul, despite the false hubris of his bumper stickers and his jovial riffs on guns or arabs. He was also a jeweler and was fasciated by a silver ring I wear made in London. After four hours of shooting and shooting the shit, I left invigorated and happy to have had the experience.
I was reminded that day, that in this divided country we live in, there is a lot of common ground if we’d just stop shouting at each other. Conversation should be challenging and we should constantly be pushed out of our comfort zones to deepen our experience. Society is a loose agreement between a group of people who share some guiding principals, but it requires constant work to keep it whole. I worry we spend too much time defending what we think is our precious corner of the world, our tribe, and avoid venturing beyond the safety of those confines. We avoid difficult conversations and we allow our opinions to be shaped by wealthy talking heads who have no real vested interest in our lives. Finding the courage to engage with other communities is how we grow as individuals. Personal growth is an analgesic against the challenges of being alive.
Rather than react when confronted with someone outside your normal clique strike up a conversation and most importantly, listen. As Kundera wrote, we are all human and we all suffer, no matter our background, politics, gender, social status, or color of our skin. I guarantee if another nation attacked America tomorrow, we would magically unite in our defense of this country and in the blink of an eye, we would be breaking bread with people we would never imagine sharing a meal with today. We shouldn’t wait for tragedy to unite us, we should build upon the strength of our differences and become aware of our shared suffering. That will take a lot of hard conversations and require us to care a little less about the next thing to buy, but the rewards both personally and societally are huge. Break free from your self imposed limitations and venture into strange waters, you won’t be sorry even if you find those waters turbulent.