Uncomfortable Conversations About Pain

Ron Sanford reads the daily newspaper every morning — a habit of more than 40 years. I occasionally hear from him when he’s heated.

Sanford, 65, a retired computer science teacher in St. Charles County, Missouri, has accused me of having an agenda when I’ve written about school boards or book bans in the past. I usually reply to his emails, as I do with local readers whenever possible. The tone of many of his messages led me to believe he’s one of my “hate-readers” — the ones who only read because they want something to criticize.

In this day and age of dwindling print subscribers, I’ll take it.

Last spring, however, I wrote something that really touched a nerve with Sanford. I was describing a situation in which my husband and I had gotten turned around in an unfamiliar neighborhood in St. Charles at night. It was shortly after two young people, one in Kansas City and one in upstate New York, had been shot by strangers simply for mistakenly knocking on their door or pulling into their driveway. At the time, I told my husband to be careful since we were in a “shoot-first” part of Missouri.

This description did not sit well with Sanford. He wrote to say that St. Charles County had lower rates of people getting shot than the city of St. Louis. He said it revealed my bias that I would describe the county that way, but not the city. (He used more emphatic language, but you get the idea.)

At first, I tried to describe what I had meant. The column was about where individuals feel safe, and a few weeks prior to writing it, I had read about signs from a white nationalist group popping up in St. Charles County. In such a deep red county, it’s also reasonable to expect a higher rate of gun ownership.

Perhaps an unknown person of color pulling into a stranger’s driveway in such an area would be viewed suspiciously. That was the context of my feeling unsafe in that situation.

Sanford insisted that my feelings did not justify the “shoot-first” descriptor. He pointed out there was scant evidence to suggest that I would be shot, and said I needed to publicly apologize. I considered his point of view and realized it was, indeed, a glib and unfair remark about St. Charles County.

I asked if I could call him and possibly write about our exchange. He reluctantly agreed.

I was curious about a few things. First of all, what was driving his dogged persistence in writing to me about this phrase? We had exchanged emails over several months by this point.

He admitted that being retired gave him ample time to send emails.

“I like getting emails because it’s something for me to do,” he said. That’s the opposite of how I feel about my overrun inbox, which I’m constantly triaging.

We did discover some unexpected common ground. He described himself as a moderate, politically speaking.

“I don’t like Trump or Biden, if that matters,” he said. Judging by the polls and approval ratings, the majority of the country feels the same way. When I asked about his top three issues going into this election, he said the economy, border security and, surprisingly, abortion.

“I have daughters,” he said. “Some of these laws being passed are insane.”

I didn’t expect to hear that.

Even more surprising, he said that he probably agrees with more of what I write than he disagrees with. You could have knocked me over with a feather.

We’ve become accustomed to making assumptions about people based on tweets, social media posts or brief interactions. Those who disagree on the most divisive issues tend to see each other as one-dimensional. But most people are more complicated. We just hear the loudest, least-nuanced voices most frequently.

Another reason I wanted to talk to Sanford is because I’ve been grappling with how our discourse around political disagreement in this country has devolved. I’ve talked to my children about how to disagree without being disagreeable, but maybe it’s better to model that behavior. In an election year that’s bound to be highly contentious and polarizing, I wanted to show them another way to talk about our differences.

“In general, I wish people who disagree with each other would talk more, like we are doing right now,” Sanford said during our phone call.

Maybe our conversation felt productive because I was willing to engage and admit that I was wrong on a point Sanford deeply cared about. It probably helped that his tone was much friendlier over the phone than in his emails. We got to know a little more about each other’s backgrounds and perspectives, and discovered areas of agreement. He trusted me enough to talk to me, even knowing I would be writing about it.

Before we ended the call, he said that his previous demands for a public apology had been “crossing the line.”

I recognized it as an olive branch, and I appreciated it.

For the record, I publicly apologize.