I recently flew home from a conference and had the good luck of sitting in the exit row with an empty seat beside me. I was tired from all the talking and engagement, and was very much looking forward to a few hours of silence and downtime.
At the last possible moment, the flight attendants seated a weepy, sniffling, and obviously miserable woman next to me. My heart sank as my irritation rose. Was I going to have to sit beside a whimpering person all the way home? I turned to my magazine and pretended that I didn’t notice her suffering.
After about five minutes, the better part of me won out over the less evolved part of me, and I somewhat grumpily turned to her and asked if she needed anything. She told me that her 20-year-old grandson had just been accidentally shot in the head. He was in the hospital, barely clinging to life. Her name was Doris, and she was all alone as she desperately tried to get to him. My heart softened, I put away my magazine, and I offered her my hand. Sasha, a friend and colleague of mine who was seated on the other side of her, overheard Doris’ story and took her other hand as well.
So the three of us sat, for three and a half hours, praying and holding and talking about life. We kept company, as all kindred should in these kinds of situations.
At one point, Doris talked about the shooting, and I said “I hate guns. I want every gun to disappear from the planet.” She looked at me blankly and said, “Guns don’t kill people! That’s like saying that pencils are responsible for education.”
I thought, What the heck?!? How can it be that she is desperately trying to get to her obviously beloved grandson who is possibly dying from a gunshot and defend the use of guns? I knew this was not the moment to get into that discussion, but was flummoxed by the seeming disconnect between her values and her personal experience.
Doris also mentioned that she lives in Sarah Palin’s district, and I noticed that I began to construct a story about who she might be. This story put us on distinctly disparate parts of the political spectrum, and it occurred to me that under any other circumstance, we might have little in common… and even less to talk about.
In this moment, however, the wisdom of the heart eclipsed the politics of the mind. Differences in agenda, point of view, strategy, and geography ceased to matter. Here was a woman named Doris, a person whose grief I shared, who needed a hand in a difficult time.
While we in the social change world often come together and unite in like-minded causes for social, racial, and economic justice, we rarely commune or share with those “on the other side.” This experience moved me to ask myself: What would happen if we stretched across boundaries and differences to truly and deeply acknowledged our collective humanity—even if we are on opposite sides of a divided issue?
Mary McLeod Bethune once wrote: “Leadership is the capacity to respond to what’s needed in the moment.” Doris, who is now among my kin, needed my tenderness, not my judgement. Leadership often asks us to set aside our assumptions and our biases in order to do what’s needed. I learned this once again on a plane traveling north as I headed home.
From my heart to yours,