Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Parents always warned not to talk about politics or religion when the family gathered.

Before this past Thanksgiving, had that advice ever been so oft repeated around the land? Anxiety was high at many tables, some agreeing in advance to avoid any talk of the recent election.

And in the workplace family, large and small, is “don’t ask, don’t tell” the unspoken mantra of the hour?¬† Plenty of other things to talk about.

Is it brave or foolhardy to break that rule?

A colleague with whom I’ve interacted both personally and professionally over the past thirty years or so, someone who I hold in high regard, both as a lawyer and as a friend, and who I know honors me as well, was approached some weeks before the election with a challenging request. He was asked to sit side by side with another lawyer, also a personal friend and colleague, before a small audience of civic leaders and share their reasons for supporting the presidential candidate of their choice. In advance, they prepared the questions they would pose to each other. This was not to be a debate. Neither assailed the other’s candidate. It was simply an effort to better understand both viewpoints, why their choice would best serve their personal and political values.

An air of friendly camaraderie filled the room both before and as the event drew to a close. Milling about, I heard many expressions of thanks to both presenters for enhancing our understanding of the policies each had endorsed.

But that was then and this is now.

I think it is fair to say that for most of us, the outcome of the presidential election came as a surprise. It seemed the entire country reeled, some in delight, others in dismay, before we caught our collective breath.

Now I hear from many about family members, neighbors and work colleagues, who they suspect or know were for the “other team”, for whom the unspoken rule is avoidance. Life goes on with business as usual. Is the intensity of feelings too great to risk bringing them out into the open?

Haven’t we learned that¬† “don’t ask, don’t tell” is deadly to the spirit?

My friend, who came out the winner, approached me at a social gathering some weeks after the election and held out his hand in greeting. I took his hand but found I could not speak. I nodded and walked away.

This haunted me. For days I regretted my lapse and felt an apology was in order. After much thought, and a few restless nights, I wrote him a letter to explain my behavior. It was lengthy and heartfelt and ended with the suggestion that we meet for lunch and address both his concerns and mine. He answered promptly and warmly welcomed the opportunity to meet.

Across the land, many who believe that a country so divided will falter, are calling for conversations that bridge the great divide. Has the healing talk begun? So far, I only hear of families torn asunder or relying on superficial banter. In the neighborhoods and the workplace, is avoidance actually saving the day?

My friend and I will share a meal and test that premise. Will the depth of our long history and good will toward each other ease the tension? I’m not without anxiety about this meeting. Will we be able to avoid polarized rhetoric and have a more nuanced conversation? Find places we can come together? I will seek to discover what values we each continue to hold dear. A friend with whom I have shared this plan warns me there will be none. The chasm, she says, is too wide.

For now, I choose to believe that is not the case.