The other day I had a conversation with a customer so comforting that when I walked away, I had a spring in my step for the rest of the 14 miles I had on my route. It’s not that he soothed me or made me feel good about myself or my life. His was not the succor offered to the sick and those in pain. The feeling I had was came from the fact that conversations like ours were still possible in the present state of our union.
Generally, I don’t have time to talk to customers. Everything in my job is counted in minutes and seconds, and every one of them adds up to something. My movements are surveilled constantly. My bosses can always know where I am and have a good notion as to what I’m doing.
But I get two ten-minute breaks during the day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. I can take these breaks anytime I want, as long as I don’t run them together with my lunch break of a half hour.
So, on delivering to my first string of businesses, I stopped for a moment in a man’s office. We’ll call him the Doctor, and he is—not a M.D. but a Ph.D. I noticed a book on his desk, a history, and asked him about it. He said he was working on a project concerning liturgical music in pre-revolutionary America.
This led me to ask him questions about music and Puritan services. “I know from my studies,” I said, “some of the work of Cotton Mather. I’ve used his sermons, pamphlets, and books in relation to social histories I wrote about Puritan New England.”
“Well, you know that the Puritans were just a small sliver of what many people understand as ‘Puritan?’”
“Yes,” I said. “Most of us group Congregationalists and Calvinists into that lump.”
“Puritans were a fraction of that lump,” he said.
“I’ve had more to do with the messages Cotton and his father Increase issued from the pulpit, as well as from correspondence they had with community members. I’m more of a social historian. So, I know more about their lifeways and social practices outside the church than I know of the church itself. My question to you, and you may or may not know, is about the liturgy. Did Puritans have music in their services.”
“Music would have been more of a Congregationalist and Calvinist practice.”
“I ask, because, as you know, the Puritans were very sort of stripped-down people in terms of what they owned, how they dressed, and, I imagine, how they practiced their religion.”
“Yes, well,” he said, “They had just a small room to worship in. No windows. Their ‘music,’ if you want to call it that, was more psalm and mostly chanted than sung.”
This went on for a while. We talked about the formation of a hierarchy in the Puritan faith, though no one was above another in the church. Thus, the importance of Puritan preachers and leadership that kept the community together, directing the building of infrastructure and other governmental functions.
We had a good long talk about religion and its changing faces in American history. This went into, then, such themes as the development of right-wing politics, presidential leadership, the enlargement of presidential power after FDR and so on.
We were, from the beginning, across the aisle from one another. He had an incisive and insightful critique of the left and was critical of the right, the side on which he very firmly stood. Similarly, I had my own critique of the right and was critical of the left. He admitted that he was of libertarian bent. I told him I was very decidedly a leftist. (I didn’t say socialist, as this is for too many people an ill-defined and manipulated hot button.) He was a religious man and I was not. And we happily chatted on.
Both of us used phrases like, “I have to disagree with you on that but . . .” “I see what you’re saying. However . . .” “I’ll give you that, but you must concede me . . .”
The point, really, is that we were Americans. We had basic faith in the founding documents and an understanding of the timeline of history and its events. We were law-abiding and believed in the rule of law. We didn’t agree on much else and, at the same time, we didn’t agree to disagree. Indeed, we disagreed on just about everything, but we could understand each other.
In short, it was the kind of discussion we should be having in every house everywhere. I don’t know why the relationship of the moment sparked and evolved the way it did, except that we started civilly and ended that way (when my break-time was over). We didn’t fear each other. Neither of us had to win in the sense that we weren’t in a competition. I think that maybe I knew more about his position from having written my Master’s thesis on the formation of the modern conservative movement. But maybe he had a deeper understanding of leftist politics than he let on.
Either way, I was heartened and glad. What was sure was this: I left the conversation an unrepentant socialist and he an unapologetic conservative Republican.
The best part of our discussion was that we both learned something from it. I knew more about Colonial religion and some things about presidents that I didn’t know before. He, too, knew more about some of the things I pointed about the growth of presidential power in the 20th century. We also knew more about each other, our temperaments, our likes and dislikes.
In the end, I am the mailman. I am a blue-collar worker from that background. Maybe he came from that too. It doesn’t matter. We may never be friends and we may never break the mailman/customer, white-collar/blue-collar hierarchy. But we talked. We argued. We connected.
And that, I think, is the way it’s supposed to work in a democracy.