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A Humble Proposal for the Healing of a Nation

Every so often, if one is so lucky, he or she might experience a moment that reaffirms a belief in the essential goodness of all people, deep down. These moments constitute the best of life and of people, and we should all seek them out. Recently, I have been fortunate enough to experience such a transformative, if secondhand, moment.

I listened as my Mom told of a recent chronicle in the life of a close friend of hers, and I have been unable to shake it from the foreground of my mind ever since. Her friend, a physician of Syrian descent with an audibly Middle-Eastern name, was working in Zanesville and entered the hospital room of a patient he was to meet for the first time. The doctor was met with a gaze of scorn emanating from the half-reclined man in a hospital bed. “Where are you from?” asked the client.

“Syria,” replied the doctor, already sensing the direction in which this line of questioning was headed. Next came an assertion from the patient as to the identity of the doctor: “terrorist,” “Muslim.” The latter is true, though the patient had no way of knowing this with any certainty. Now the doctor found himself at a crossroads, and the path he chose should serve as a model for all Americans in the days, months and years ahead.

The knowing physician realized immediately that alerting the patient of the rudeness and even the bigotry of the man’s assumptions would not change the wrong-minded ideology behind them or similar assumptions from being made in the future. Nor would posting the exchange on Facebook for voracious consumption by the masses and thereby making a social pariah of the patient effect any transformative attitude. Nothing short of what followed would have.

The doctor, with an unaltered, if unreciprocated, respect for his interlocutor and an unchanged expression upon his face, began the work of chipping away at the ideology of this man—the ideology which asserted with Euclidian preciseness that Syrian equals Muslim equals terrorist. The doctor explained to the patient, with a tone of outreach, not outrage, that the terrorists we see on television are but such a small minority of all Muslims. Far greater, he explained, are the Muslims who wish to live in peace and who love this nation as they both did. They are our friends and our neighbors and our doctors and teachers. At the end of this lesson in open-mindedness, the patient spoke words he could have never been expected to when their relationship began mere minutes before.

“You’re a good man,” conceded the patient, “and I’m glad you’re taking care of me.” Then came an apology for the assumptions made, and a promise to pray for the doctor and his family.

By never seeing the patient as an adversary or an assailant—even if he had every right to—and rather a friend that had not yet been made, that day ended with at least one fewer case of Islamaphobia by misinformation than it began with.

In Zanesville, a city with a 5.5% lower non-Caucasian population than the state average, it is not unlikely that the doctor he met on that fateful day was one of only a handful of Muslims that the patient had met in his entire life. As is too often the case with us humans, he was afraid of the unknown. This does not mean he should be forgiven for his words, but they can be placed into context. So often we fall into the dangerous and divisive mindset that our ideological opposites are our moral inferiors. But what we neglect to bear in mind is that in most cases, our ideological opposites have not experienced all that we have, and thus, do not have the acquired perspective that we do in approaching a certain issue. This same truth should make us more open to the views of others, for we have not the perspective that they do.

Somewhere along the timeline of our culture wars, we stopped seeking an agreeable peace and stopped viewing our opposers as people with perspectives as real and valid as our own. If we are ever to reclaim any vestige of national unity, this has to change.

Now as ever, spirited debates, in which voices are raised–and the only crime is indifference–are necessary in a plural society such as ours. More than necessary, they are the price, paid in civic engagement, that we all owe for this great privilege we call America.

But from time to time, let us speak softly. We will find that these rare exchanges of empathetic enemies pay a dividend worthy of America herself. In them we might become reacquainted with that essential truth, that first hope of this nation—that there is always more of which unites than divides us.

One of the greatest joys of living is the incredible capacity of humans to change for the better. The moment we stop believing in this capacity, we’re done for. By this anecdote and countless others happening every moment of every day, I am convinced that there are far more good people in this world than bad ones, far more that mean well than ill. If we can’t agree on refugees or guns or abortion, I hope we can agree on this.

And so at the end of this chronicle there stood two men of disparate lands and upbringings, sharing fears, love of a common country, and the fluorescent glow of a hospital room that had borne witness to a miracle.


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