When our granddaughter Evie comes for a visit from Raleigh, we know what she’s expecting: a trip to Coquina Beach, south of Nags Head.
And we’ll go, no matter what time of year. Even the drive there has become something of a ritual. In the back seat, she immediately settles in to her “Bridge Tally.”
The route is familiar: via NC 32, US 64, then south on NC 12 at Nags Head, finally turning left into the inadequately marked beach access opposite from the Bodie Island Lighthouse.
At last count, there are six bridges on the way. And each one is beautifully necessary, from the smallest (the bridge over the Scuppernong in Columbia) to the largest (the Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge over the Croatan Sound).
The absence, due to disrepair, of a single bridge would jeopardize the entire trip. No beach, no sun and sand, and a very disappointed little girl.
Close to home, there are indeed a number of bridges in disrepair. And no, I’m not referring to the NC 32 bridge over the Albemarle Sound, although driving over that one is akin to riding Gilley’s mechanical bull in Urban Cowboy.
Nope. The broken bridges I’m thinking of are the ones beat to smithereens by this long mean season of politics.
It is commonly known that the country is polarized in a bad way. Too many folks occupy the extremes, and too few place themselves near enough to the center to be in shouting distance, much less talking space. The bridges that we used to traverse with regularity, from one person to another, from one political community to the other, are now pockmarked with potholes, or even swaying perilously in the wind and tide.
I’m not so much concerned about how people voted last Tuesday on Election Day. I’m mostly concerned about how we react to how other people voted.
We all need to work together in repairing bridges across our many divides.
We do this not by avoiding politics. That is really not a good prescription, as it’s about as impossible as avoiding religion. When there’s a secret, tacit agreement to squelch the conversation about a certain subject, that subject eats away at tempers and haunts the conversation with Freudian slips and toxic irony.
Better, far better, is a calm agreement to work for civic engagement.
On the morning of Election Day, Eric Lui of Citizen University gave some good advice in a radio interview:
“It’s really hard to build those kinds of bridges if you start out with the most polarizing thing. Why did you vote for that idiot? Why did you do such a stupid thing? But if instead you actually begin with what shaped you? What formed your worldview? What were some of the big experiences in your life? And it may be even after you humanize this person and unpack a bit of their story that you’ll still feel like, boy, this is just deeply sad to me now that I understand this person’s story that they still voted this way.”
This is helpful and productive. The long and short of Lui’s advice is that it’s better to feel sad than mad, about a person’s opposite politics. We don’t have to resort to anger, which only produces polarization. And we can make that change from mad to sad by taking the time to learn the backstory: as in, “What shaped you?” “What formed your view of the world, of life?” “What is important to you?”
There are benefits to speaking with people who differ from your set of opinions and beliefs. No one can stay mentally healthy in an echo chamber. Political bubbles are toxic to the health of the nation. Rather, hearing different views expands your mind. It can make you more tolerant of new people. It can broaden your point of view. This is always a good thing: the Bible calls it “wisdom.”
Pretty soon, a few folks in Edenton will be working just on this sort of bridge repair. There is great promise in civic engagement in our beautiful historic town and countryside, so I’m looking forward to good civic dialogue that extends further than immediate political decisions. Maybe these last few years have done us all a good turn by making us attend to overdue bridge inspection.
We can practice and refine the art of open, civil conversation. People of all stripes and persuasions can repair old bridges that span the divides of opposing labels — like Republicans vs Democrats, Conservatives vs Liberals, Traditionalists vs Modernists.
And in some cases, new bridges can be built.
People are not these labels at heart. They are, or rather “we” are, “feeling, hurting, loving, hoping human beings,” Eric Lui said. We need to acknowledge the same set of human motivations in the person we’re arguing with.
I think in a certain old fashioned American sense, we all hold to the conservative principle that there are no rights without responsibilities. There are people, indeed, who demand unchecked rights with no responsibility — we call these people “toddlers,” and toddler behavior is exquisitely predictable. And, ironically, such behavior is not free at all: more and more bridges are burnt in the toddler lifestyle, and he ends up with nowhere to go.
We all share a responsibility for community life here in Edenton, and in the entire area. Let’s connect and talk about our shared civic commitment, “party free.”
Let’s repair the bridges.