I walked out, slamming the door behind me. I don’t recall anymore what the argument was about, but I remember the feeling of turning my back and walking away. The anger felt pure and cleansing, a powerful rush of self-righteous indignation.
The feeling was short-lived. By the time I walked across the parking lot to my car, I had second thoughts. I was still confident that I was in the right, but I also knew that I had a choice to make right then — to drive away and perhaps say goodbye permanently to a long-lasting friendship or to go back in and apologize, to value the friendship more than my attitude.
This incident occurred when I was in my 20s, but I remember it like it were yesterday. Looking back, it seems to me now that it was a decisive moment in my life. If I had not turned back, not only would I have lost that friendship, it would have set my life on a different path altogether.
Turning around and walking back through that door was one of the most difficult things I have ever done.
In physics, the term “inertia” designates the force of continuation, the fact that an object moving in a straight line will stay on that path unless acted upon by an external force.
Inertia also works within our moral lives, and it can be seen in the fact that a person having decided on a course of action resulting from a moral judgment will tend to continue upon that path no matter what. Turning around, admitting that one has made a mistake or even acknowledging that there are greater considerations than appear to one at the time is not only difficult, it is exceedingly rare. When it occurs, it can feel almost like a miracle, as if one has been acted upon by an external force, by something like grace.
This is perhaps why so much religious literature uses the language of turning to describe the work of the spirit.
Confucius observed that “when the archer misses the center of the target, he turns around and seeks for the cause of his failure in himself.”
There is the Hebrew blessing that says, “may the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”
And, of course, the most powerful story of the New Testament is the one in which a Samaritan turns aside from his path to give aid to a stranger.
The idea of turning runs so deeply in our spiritual language that it is the root of the word “conversion,” which literally means “to turn together.” That also gives us the word “conversation.”
We would do well to remember that when we turn together in conversation, it is not only a physical action but a moral one. Each time we do that we are, in a small but significant way, affirming the worth of the person to whom we are speaking.
Speaking to another person may not seem that different from speaking about them, but it is world’s apart in its moral significance. It is the difference between turning toward someone and turning away from them.
Could there be anything more important for us as Americans right now than to begin talking to one another instead of talking about one another?
Countless commentators have remarked upon the increasing polarization of American politics, and though they may disagree about the reasons for this polarization, they are surely right about the fact of it. It seems to me that there may not even be any reasons in the traditional sense. That is to say, there is no coherent set of policies or principles that grounds our division; the division itself is the point. We seem increasingly guided in our politics, not by a direction toward which we want to head but simply away from those with whom we disagree.
I love a good argument. To engage with someone in an argument is a sign of respect. It demonstrates that you take their views seriously. It is the opposite of disregarding someone.
The challenge is to find a way to be serious without being solemn, and I find that it helps to remember how many times I have changed my mind over the years about nearly every important political and social issue I have debated.
Given my track record, there is no reason to think I have reached a final conclusion on any subject, except one: That whoever I'm talking to at the time has inestimable moral value and the issue we are talking about probably does not.
And that means I should never turn my back on someone and give up on them. To do so in my personal relations means giving up on the possibility of friendship. To do so in my social relations means giving up on the possibility of citizenship.
Why are Americans so polarized right now? I’m not sure what the answer is, and I’m not sure it matters that much. What defines us is not so much our reasons as our attitudes.
Every day we have a choice to make, to turn together or to turn away. This is the choice that defines America.
Richard Kyte is director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis.