Sitting on an airplane from Manchester, NH, to Philadelphia, I was having a nice conversation with my seatmate Walter, an older gentleman on his way to Florida. We were having plane talk about our kids, our travel plans, the pesky New England weather. Pleasant and harmless. Until I glanced at my phone and Walter pronounced: "If that's Obama calling, tell him he's a bum."
We hadn't been talking about politics. I don't talk to strangers about politics these days unless they've tipped their hand and I'm fairly sure where they stand. Not a single mention of Russia, Obamacare, or Trump had passed our lips. Walter's random quip seemed out of the blue.
"Oh, I doubt he'll be calling," I said while trying to manage a wry grin. Then I clammed up. Went dark. Stayed silent. I was ticked.
Flying at altitude, I figured it wasn't a good time to start the discussion I really wanted to have. I had so many questions for Walter. Why is Obama still on your mind now? And why the perennial dislike of him? Why say that to a stranger? No. What I really wanted to ask was this: What made you think you could say that to me?
I had several minutes to contemplate what to say next because I wasn't sure I wanted to keep talking to Walter at all. I felt my cheeks flush and my body shift nervously against the rigid boundaries of my upright position and locked seat belt. I wanted to respond. Not let the attack go unmet. Because in these times, those are fighting words. An unprovoked attack on President Obama is hard not to interpret as a chest-thumping endorsement of President Trump. And as much as Walter disliked Obama, I dislike Trump. So why not talk about it?
Instead I copped out. I couldn't think of a way to have a meaningful conversation with a plane load of eavesdroppers, so I counted to ten, twenty, thirty, forty. After several moments of what started to feel like an awkward silence, I turned to Walter and asked him some innocuous question that I can't remember, trying to prove to myself that I could overcome my own biases and keep the conversation going.
But turning away from hard conversations isn't really going to help any of us. As uncomfortable as it felt to face a contentious exchange in close quarters, the plane may have been the perfect place to have that discussion, a metaphorical vehicle for traveling through these turbulent times as an indivisible group. Our sole intent to land safely together—as Americans, as citizens, as human beings.
It's an interesting concept. Why not fill a plane (or a bus or a train car) with a diverse group of citizens and force us to talk to each other? We wouldn't be able to storm out. We'd be shoulder-to-shoulder, on a journey together. It might be more constructive and healing than retreating to our own media channels and self-perpetuating lines of reasoning. Some enterprising bipartisan non-profit should have a go at it, you know "talking tours." It could be the ultimate focus group: a roving, border-crossing melting pot. A pipe dream, I know.
During the rest of the flight, Walter had more to say, but I was prepared this time. When he began talking about the latest terrorist gadgets used on planes (another seemingly taboo topic given our circumstances) and how the God he worships is nothing like the God that ISIS worships, I began to feel empathy. Walter felt more scared to me than anything else. Or maybe just perplexed by the world he found himself in. Aren't we all.
What I didn't learn about Walter is vast. What I could have learned will remain unknown. But next time I meet a Walter, I'll be ready. I'll try to be brave enough to ask questions in respectful ways, to maintain my curiosity about differing views of core American values. To listen, hard. To find answers to the troubling question I find at the essential root of it all: Why can't we all just get along?