During orientation for my last stint at USAA, we were asked to consider the four branches of military service and write down the names of anyone we knew who either had served or is currently serving in any of those branches. I was surprised to recall that I know several people who have served in either the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, or Coast Guard.
You see, USAA is a financial services company that primarily serves the military community and their dependents. This exercise was to remind us that regardless of the department in which we worked, we were serving real people. It wasn’t just the broad “military community” we worked for. These are individuals with unique needs and concerns.
I’ve been thinking a lot about all of the issues taking up the public forum these days. We tend to talk in big broad strokes about whatever the issues of the day are. But as we spout off our positions, spewing forth a lot of careless — and more often mindless — rhetoric, we forget a crucial part of the conversation.
The issues we wrestle with have an impact on our society, to be sure, but our society is made up of individual men, women, and children, each with unique experiences, reactions to those experiences, and are living with the fallout of those experiences. I wonder how often, in our efforts to put forth our position on something, we stop and think about a person we know, outside of ourselves, that has been directly affected by the thing we’re talking about.
I’ve had to ask myself how many times I’ve sat down with a single parent, a divorcee man, a homeless family, an immigrant, a gay couple, a gun owner, someone who has had an abortion, and anyone else who is living through the experiences of life and just listened; not debated nor point out where I perceive their thinking is faulty, but just listened.
It’s easier for us to think and speak in generalities because doing so covers up the humanity of the individuals behind the big ideas we like to debate. But when we start to think about the people we know personally — and if you don’t, you really need to get out more — we begin to understand that things aren’t nearly as settled as we imagine them to be.
Each of us will land on a position on any given issue. Many of us will change those positions, going back and forth or perhaps finding some third option we hadn’t considered. But there’s immense value in not having a death grip on our opinions until we have the opportunity to broaden our understanding of how the world affects the people around us.
Put yourself out there. Instead of surrounding yourself with people that look like you, think like you, and act like you, seek out people you wouldn’t normally have any occasion to know.
If I’ve learned nothing else in the last few years, I’ve come to see the world as a place where there’s a lot more gray than there is black and white. And it seems most of humanity exists in the uncertain, confusing, gray areas of life than anywhere else.