on discomfort

Seven months ago in the mountains of Italy, I got into a heated discussion about the continued relevance of feminism with new friends from Finland, South Africa, and Australia. For those who know me well, you’ll know I have a habit of striking up intense conversations with relative strangers, so this was nothing new. But, what was new was the fact I’d be living and working in close proximity with these people for a month. In my past life, I’d agree to disagree, and then I’d walk away. Here, that wasn’t an option.

As we sat on the cobblestones outside our communal kitchen, my room a few feet from the action, I had nowhere to escape. We would be cleaning bathrooms, drying dishes, and eating every meal together.

Over the course of a few hours, we shared many a coffee. We listened to each other. We rarely raised our voices. We disagreed plenty. And then we walked to dinner together. During the weeks that followed, I engaged in sometimes difficult but always fascinating conversations with this group of volunteers. In conversations about domestic policy, the military, women’s rights, and capitalism, I pushed far beyond my normal comfort zone. Unlike on social media or in most daily interactions, I couldn’t disengage when it was convenient. We were basically living in adult summer camp, for better or worse.

Here’s the thing though. Seven months later, I still remember those conversations vividly. And, seven months later, I still talk with those friends. They give me things to read, questions to ask, and continually give me hope for my generation — that we are engaged, resolved, active citizens of this world.

Nine years ago, I spent a summer knee deep in the archives of Philadelphia, researching and writing my thesis about the first newspapers of the early republic (what a wild summer it was!). The basic gist of my research came down to this: the way in which information was presented, the way in which stories were juxtaposed on the page, actively constructed identities. Namely — whiteness, blackness, what those meant, and who was included (and who wasn’t). How people consumed information mattered. It transferred off the page into lived experience.

I share this not to start a longer conversation about 19th century journalism (though I promise that would be thrilling!), but rather to remind myself that how we are presented with and consume information will always and has always mattered. It’s made me think about the ways in which I personally consume information, about the people I surround myself with, about the spaces I’ve been asked or forced to enter in the past year. Because they’ve been anything but homogenous.

Travel, especially cheap travel, is all about the unexpected and the unknown. In one of my favorite On Being episodes, writer and philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah uses the phrase “sidling up to difference.” To me, travel has become about sidling up to and engaging with difference in tangible ways — in sharing a bunkbed with someone with different viewpoints, in sharing a meal with someone in a different language, in navigating unfamiliar terrains. It’s constantly being presented with alternative viewpoints, languages, lived experiences.

But, in the past few weeks as I’ve resettled briefly at home, I’ve also realized my travels have presented me with easy, fairly safe engagements with difference. Yes, I may have shared a room, a meal, a month with people of different viewpoints and nationalities. But, when our time was done, I could eventually leave. The more difficult engagement is with the spaces, places, and people we can’t always leave.

On the day after the election, after a few hours of surreal, incredulous processing, I finally wept. I wept not simply because of the results, but because I’d realized most of my family had voted for our now president — or not voted at all. I felt I had failed as an ally, a feminist, a niece, a granddaughter. When it came to engaging with difference, I had not opened up that conversation with the people I’d known my entire life.

Because striking up difficult conversations is always easier with strangers.

This week, I sent an email to some of my extended family. After months of relative silence and stewing, I reached out with an offer: what if we, in our vast differences, actually broke the cardinal rule of families. What if we talked about politics? I’m thousands of miles from them, but I pitched the idea of a virtual dinner table. Because change, I’ve always believed, starts at the dinner table (…Ronald Reagan also believed this and said it first.)

I’m not expecting us to agree or for this to become a constant debate about who knows best. As Appiah said, “conversation is not about principles and coming to complicated agreements; it’s just about hearing all the mess.” I am expecting us to listen, to get out of our respective bubbles, to challenge each other, and to hold each other accountable. And to remember that the political is always personal.

One of my favorite new friendships in this past year is actually with a former colleague with whom I disagree on almost everything. He is a staunch pro-life Catholic, and we have regular conversations about abortion, women’s health, and feminism. I don’t think we’ve changed each other’s minds in this past year, but we have recognized some tenets of our moral compass that point in the same direction. And, we each can now articulate what our respective moral backbones are and when our political actions step outside those bounds. It’s refreshing, surprising, uncomfortable, and, frankly, one of my most essential friendships. 

I’ve had plenty of interactions with people of differing viewpoints that devolved quickly, and I do think there is a limit to how much we can engage with difference before we self-destruct (great self care tips for the coming years here). But, as a white lady with a boat load of privilege, I also realize it’s safe and not as personally exhausting for me to engage with difference. It’s also therefore my responsibility to do so. As one pointed sign said this weekend, “white women elected Trump.” It’s on white feminists to show up in our own communities, to recognize that intersectional feminism is a bare minimum, and to stay educated when it can be so easy, so comfortable to not.

As I approach my last few months of travel, I want to remember that this engagement with difference can and should start at the most local, personal levels. For the coming days, months, and years ahead, I’m taking an oath of my own. Difficult conversations cannot and should not be reserved for foreign spaces. I need to engage with my family, my peers, and my community first. If that initial conversation in Italy is any indication, it will be equally uncomfortable and illuminating. But it will be deeply necessary for those relationships to develop and for this country to slowly arc toward a better future.