Credit: George Danby / BDN

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Dennis Marble of Hampden is retired from a career that included teaching, education and sales. He ran the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter for 20 years.

A conservative friend of mine recently challenged me to a public debate on Facebook. I was tempted but then considered our history and things he was likely to say and statements I might make, and I decided not to take him up on the offer. But that didn’t end my thoughts about the two of us and how far apart we are when it comes to politics.  

What really bothered me wasn’t that set of differences; what stuck to me like a burr was the fact that, deep down, I didn’t believe either of us had the intention to actually listen to each other. A “debate” would have been a rush to score points. And nothing would be any better, and no one would come away better informed.

Some time later in the day, while using my lawn mower to shred oak leaves, I realized I had been reflecting on how stuck in my own, dissatisfied place I have become in terms of engagement with others about politics. I have been particularly stymied with friends who support certain elected officials, policies and candidates, and I am just as certain that my friends think some of my own choices are out to lunch.

I have been shocked at the number of voters who choose politicians who, in my eyes, are arrogant bullies who not only favor the elite but, at least in some cases, clearly threaten our democracy. Yet these friends, and millions whom I don’t know, are good people, human beings who walk a much more generous and thoughtful path than do the elected officials they support. How can this be? What can we do?

As I was pushing the mower, I started to reminisce about childhood. I miss raking leaves into piles and then burning them, especially on a calm but chilly and rapidly darkening dusk. I thought, too bad we can’t do that anymore. And then I experienced a run of thoughts including “too much regulation” and “how many thousands of piles of burning leaves would it take to equal the output of just one, coal-burning electric plant?” And then the thought hit me, the same thought that likely strikes every old person: I miss the pleasures of my youth.

I miss putting baseball cards on the spokes of my bike. I miss Little League. I miss the smell of burning leaves, and leaning on a rake next to my Dad. And I miss old fashioned, participatory, messy but genuine politics. Does support for certain progressive policies mean we have to lose our traditions?

I can’t reverse time and I can’t change federal energy policy. I’ll never embrace ideas that are destructive. But I can take stock of my own positions and the ideas that drive them, and I can try to connect with people who hold political views in opposition to my own. Maybe I can learn to “work smarter,” listening more and looking for values we hold in common before concluding all we can do is clash.  

I can reflect more, and quietly, away from 24-hour cable news and social media that continually message us with stories of conflict and destruction. A lot of times watching the news makes us angry. A lot of politicians these days are putting forth proposals to feed on this fear and anger. They almost always divide us, associating one tribe with one set of beliefs while stating that the other tribes and their values are either weak or are threats.  

I believe that this anger is a false answer. Dismissing whole groups of citizens, blaming them for our problems, is the work of destructive autocrats who have no one’s interests in mind but their own. I believe, with passion as I think of my grandchildren, that we need to take real and immediate action on a significant number of issues from voting rights to climate change.

But I also want to smell the burning leaves. And I believe that looking for values we share, before we draw lines, will give us a real chance to get closer to collective solutions and a solid sense of community. And that would be a real change.