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  • Writer's pictureKevin Graham

Building bridges

Forty-two years ago, I thought Russians were my enemies. That’s what I was taught.

Forty-one years ago, I married a Russian, whom I met while at university. Twenty-three years ago, I married another Russian (these were sequential events, I should stress). I share these facts so you can understand that I have acquired a taste for engaging with people who come from backgrounds and perspectives dramatically different from my own. You may also take it to indicate that I am a glutton for punishment. I am not, and insist that I have no regrets, on either account. Life is a journey, sometimes this way, sometimes that.

On HBO this weekend, Bill Maher argued in his closing remarks that the differences between us are what make our lives together the most interesting. I agree. His illustrative example was the couple – Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton, as a pair coming from dramatically contrasting political viewpoints. We are not enemies, Maher insists, though we may at times disagree. We are on a shared journey. Shared, he argues, with a responsibility to listen to each other’s viewpoints, be they “elitist” or “deplorable”, and to search for common ground. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

The challenge in engaging with people who are not like us is that we naturally gravitate toward positions of stable or fixed understanding, and resist any force that tries to pull us away from the comfort of our conveniently static personal picture of the world around us. Hence, the notion of a ‘stable genius’… incapable of adaptation or growth, but very good, it seems, with a pitchfork.

Maher’s piece this weekend reminded me of a personal experience that bears profoundly on my understanding of shared journeys crossed by political viewpoints. It’s a Russian story, centred on a trip with my first wife to visit relatives in Moscow late in December 1983. We were entertained one evening by a young family in their decidedly small apartment. We had never met, yet it was apparent that they had gone to considerable lengths to lay out a feast for us. We were treated to delicacies clearly not common in the home of our hosts.

Misha, perhaps 35, was employed as a bridge engineer. He honoured me with his own place at the head of the table, and sat next to me, speaking in broken English. My understanding of the Russian language was (and sadly, remains) limited to a few key phrases… “you’re beautiful; I love you; please come here; kiss me”. You catch my drift. In any event, Misha and I stumbled through an evening of disjointed but wonderful conversation. We got by, with occasional translation services from the other end of the table. Dinner was periodically interrupted as he pulled out his guitar and sang for us “about life, about love… about a woman”. As I recall, every song he introduced was about life, about love… about a woman.

This man was intense and very expressive. He wanted very much for us to feel “at home in his home”. His two young daughters entertained us after dinner with acrobatic dance and a piano recital. In short, it was one of the most entertaining evenings of my life. I was touched by the clear effort undertaken on our behalf. My understanding of the Russian people, their lives, their struggle, and their humanity, was altered forever, and favourably so. So young, with so much to learn.

Close to midnight, Misha escorted us downstairs from the apartment, into the cold open air to hail a taxi. Moscow in late December can be very cold. Much to my surprise, standing on the sidewalk, Misha embraced me fully, and looked me in the eyes. “Kevin,” he said, “tonight, we have built a bridge. I wish in my heart that the leaders of the East and the leaders of the West could spend such an evening and build such a bridge.”

What more is there to say?

Kevin Graham

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