Meeting Across the Crevasse by Jo Nageswaran Kinnard

photo of blue and orange abstract painting

I have always been comforted by the space between my fellow human-beings and me, while appreciating what we share in the common ground of our humanity. The idea of losing my individuality in something amorphous is off-putting. However, for a lot of people, “different” is difficult, terrifying, or unacceptable. How do we understand and bridge this divide?

My mother was a South Indian classical musician who specialized in a rare genre that was used in classical dance. In her singing she would touch upon micro-tones between notes to create harmonies that brought out the emotions conveyed in the narratives of dance music such as love, longing, heartbreak, and the search for a higher power. Mom had students from all over the world. Some of them were musicians in other genres, such as Western classical music. She took these opportunities to learn more about the students’ genre of music. She even learned how to play classical Spanish guitar from one student. She and her fellow musicians would together produce incredible acoustic experiences. I’m no musician but she explained to me the role and value of having tiny little gaps between the notes. 

Mom’s passion for nuances spilled over into her ability to make friends easily and strike up conversations with total strangers, establishing rapport with them through similarities and differences. 

In any encounter, whether it is in music, visual art, relationships, conversations, or life in general, if we’re too close to something, we don’t see much of anything, because we are stuck in our own narrow perspective. If we are too far away, we cannot dive into the details and nuances that will take us outside of ourselves to the extent needed, to create meaning. A little bit of space between us makes all the difference. Interstices add, embellish, and enhance how we see one another and the world, and move us to a new plane of understanding, while keeping us true to our own identities.

I met June while walking in my neighborhood. The only time we conversed was when we passed each other walking our respective dogs. She would ask me how I was, and how my partner was doing. I would ask her how she was doing. We would discuss the weather, and our dogs. She didn’t know much about me, not even what I do for a living. June is white, and I am brown. It was obvious that our backgrounds were very different. She didn’t ask about my weird accent and hadn’t ever been curious about my country of origin. I loved that she just saw me as a human being. It was reassuring, especially because I had had too many encounters with strangers where they were guarded, or overly curious about me. 

June was a talker. I was glad to listen. There were days when she shared snippets of her life with me, on the sidewalk, for up to fifteen minutes. It may have gone on longer, if our dogs didn’t get restless, or I didn’t show signs of needing to be on my way. She would talk to me about her ex, her children, her jobs, and her health. She had told me that she lived on her own. I felt gratified that she was comfortable sharing all that with me, despite barely knowing me. It seemed that we both had a hunger for human connection. June was fast becoming a friend, only a step away from sharing coffee, or so I thought, until my most recent exchange with her. 

This was a few weeks ago, on a cool winter afternoon. As usual, because one of our dogs tends to get skittish with other dogs, we stood on opposite sidewalks, talking across the road.

June immediately started telling me about her extended family. 

“I’m going to my nephew’s graduation. And he’s gotten engaged to a lovely girl who will make a perfect mate for him. She is a wonderful addition to the family. She goes to the right church, and she belongs to the right political party.” Smiling, June added, “I am sure you understand what I mean.”

She had mentioned the name of the private school her nephew attends, and that gave me an inkling which side of the center her family’s religious and political views might be located. But it wasn’t clear to me how I was supposed to understand the adjective “right.” 

She didn’t know me well enough to know if I even went to church. She had no idea about my political leanings. I had stuck to the weather and dogs as my main topics of banter. 

What especially worries me is why she thought I would get what she meant, “wink, wink.” 

Later that day I would think about how I thought of her now, and more importantly, how I came across to her. But right then, I was hard put to reply. Several thoughts were rippling through my head.

Was that her way of leading into a more personal realm of dialogue, religion? If it was, it was risky, and unlikely to yield the results she might desire. Or was there a simpler explanation, namely, that she thought of me as a “nice person” and in her mind that meant that I must be a church goer, and I must belong to the party that she had been told (and had unwittingly accepted) was the right political party? Did she think: “She’s nice, she must be with us. She can’t be one of those people!” Or was her assumption based on my being married to a white man? Whichever way I cut it, I didn’t like it.

I replied, “I’m happy for you, June. I must get home. I have an appointment. Talk to you later.”

I admit I was chicken and walked away, instead of asking her the burning, snarky questions that were trying to escape my mouth: “And what would the right political party be, June? Does that church and that party follow the teachings of Jesus, who you say is the head of the church? Would Jesus endorse the views that church and party have about those who may not hold the same beliefs? I heard Jesus was a bit of a renegade, hanging out with people of dubious character.”

“Ask away,” I hear my inner realist saying to me. “Go right ahead, if you are ready to be ostracized, trolled, and made to wish you had never opened your mouth. What is this worth to you?”

I was aware that in many churches, attendees were advised about which political party they should back, and for which candidate they needed to cast their vote. They were quite open about it. Unfortunately, I personally knew of churches where people would not sit next to someone who did not share their political views and would even call them not-so-polite names. 

There are a lot of lovely people in the church at large. I’ve met them. But it seems to me that many of them are too close to the problem to see that they may have lost touch with Jesus’ teachings as they are pressured to follow the herd on matters that they should decide for themselves. For many, church is less about the assumptions and consequences of beliefs than about the rituals and observances of the institution. If the Sunday ritual meets their needs, they are happy to check the right boxes.

In a world in which we are bombarded by messaging from influential and compelling voices, including the pulpit, is there a way for someone—even an insider— to graciously question the validity of the assumptions underlying the messaging, without being cast out as an apostate?  And what about an outsider, someone like me? Would I be given the standing—that every human being should be able to expect— to raise the kind of questions I wanted June and others like her to consider, before she believed completely a line that someone had fed her?

Each of us is unique, and because of this, there’s always a gap between the words that are spoken and the meaning that they carry to the audience. But through listening and dialogue, those gaps can become interstices that provide a way for us to connect meaningfully and enrich all the participants in the encounter.

As I walked away, I felt distress, frustration, disappointment, and helplessness. An increasingly polarized community, we were losing something precious here. I knew that the conversation had forever changed my perception of June, and my understanding of how I might be perceived by the other. 

I’ll see June again. We’ll greet each other and exchange a few words about the weather. But at least for me, for now, the road that runs between us looks like a crevasse that will be hard to bridge. 

Jo Nageswaran Kinnard is a philosopher and writer who loves exploring cultures, learning languages, and living close to nature. She is a published author with two books (Thomson-Wadsworth/Cengage, Wipf and Stock), several articles, and papers in the academe and technology space. She enjoys reading and writing fiction, non-fiction, and anything that questions our assumptions.

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