We sat at the bar, sipping glasses of wine, engaged in animated conversation about a variety of subjects – the Middle East, Ukraine, West Africa and the Ebola crisis, and (I was surprised, for race is a preeminently hotwire issue) Michael Brown’s death and the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. It was the lively exchange that people who first meet often engage; strangers serendipitously pulling up at the next stool, broaching otherwise unmentionable subjects, saying things that in polite company, when the stakes of remaining in good relation are higher, one might not say.
One thing we didn’t discuss. Yet. On reflection, the fairly elastic boundary of a strangers’ conversation has limits.
“Clarence” was in town “up from mid-state”, having come to the medical center with his 80 year old mother who was diagnosed with cancer of the eye. Ocular melanoma. “Never heard of it”, he exclaimed. With the surgery performed and deemed successful, Clarence and his mother were heading home the next day. We hoisted our glasses in thanksgiving. I offered “Godspeed on your journey home.”
He motioned to the bartender. “Pour me and my friend another glass of wine.” He asked, “What do you do?” Slowly, telling him I was an Episcopal priest, I quickly waited for the conversation to change. (It usually does when the subject of religion is raised as people tend to react from the depths of their pleasant or unpleasant experiences of the institutional church.)
“Episcopal Church, huh? Y’all pretty liberal. Right?”
“Yes.” I smiled slightly, not sure of the next turn.
“What do you think we ought to do about those children coming up our way from south of our borders?”
His countenance sagged. He pursed his lips, shrugging his shoulders. Then he said, “You seem to be good people, and people are entitled to their views. But I’m not for it. At all.”
I had choices. Change the subject. Stop talking altogether. Thank him for the glass of wine and make my exit. Or continue the conversation. But how? I felt probing the issue of how I was for and he was against would be fruitless. Our previously lively conversation might remain so, but less convivial.
“I have my views,” I offered, “but I never assume I’m right. I try to listen to others.”
“That’s good. I like that. So many people just hunker down and don’t budge.”
I felt a rush of hopefulness that we might avoid the crash of the end of a conversation after a clash of viewpoints.
“You know,” he added, “there’s a difference between being right and being correct. Right is like when the boss is right. The boss has the right to set rules. Whether it’s correct, meaning good for everybody, is something else.”
“Fair enough”, I said. “However, when I spoke of right, I was referring to truth. When I take a position, though I may believe it, I don’t assume that I have all truth. Even when our views differ, you have a piece of the truth that I need to hear.”
“Another good point,” he said. “But, you know, there are three kinds of truth. One, when I look you in the eye and tell you what’s true and you don’t believe it. Two, when I look you in the eye and tell you a lie and you believe it. And three, when I look you in the eye and tell you a lie and you don’t believe it because you already know what’s true.”
I couldn’t follow the line of logic. Who is the speaker of the truth or the lie? Who is the listener?
With a broad smile, he said, “Like I say, people can believe whatever they want. People also can find their own ways to hell.”
Whimsically stated, his words had a ring of truth. His truth. I believed that he believed what he had said. I smiled, too, wanly, for, as my truth was decidedly different from his, I sensed that the conversation was over.