On beliefs

A few nights ago, I went to a bar with a friend, and while we were sitting and chatting, this guy dressed in a red and black plaid shirt, tattooed arms, and those round earrings that stretch your ears sat down near us. He was an inebriated talker with a small amount of charm. He started:

I’m not from around here; I’m from the south. Yes, the south south. But I’m not racist or anything. I just think people shouldn’t be lazy. As long as they work to provide for themselves and give back a little, they’re ok.

So that was a weird start to an even weirder conversation. Sometimes, I just ignore people at bars who want to talk about things that maybe don’t quite interest me or sound quite right, but this was unavoidable, rather funny, and also got me thinking. He continued:

You know what’s messed up though? I work hard and mind my own business, and I come here, and I can’t even bring my marijuana on the plane. It’s like, how’s a guy supposed to get by? It makes me resent people, you know?

OK, fairly typical 20-something complaint. Fine. And he’s from the north part of Florida, so I give him a pass. He goes on:

I like you guys. You know, I’m not crazy or anything, but everyone I come into contact with in Florida, I hate. Like, really hate them. And I mean no disrespect, but it’s the same up here; everyone’s just trying too hard. People don’t know what they’re about but just what they think they’re about. You guys are different. You’re strangers and I can tell you get it.

This threw me for a loop a bit. On one hand, I was totally flattered; Mr. Tough To Please thought we were awesome! On the other hand, what vibe had I given off or words did I say to justify this? How was I any different from who he was describing – the people who just think they know what they’re about? And who is he to judge? He asks me if I had ever fired a gun. I say no and he goes on:

Look, you may think I’m crazy, but I believe strongly in the right to bear arms. Did you know it’s illegal in New York to own one? In fact, do you know how hard it is to own one lots of places in the country?

I actually agreed with him on this one, but added that it should be much more carefully regulated because too many people die. I also, however, know that it would be quite tough to regulate more, because not issuing a gun based on a person’s character, for instance, feels like a constitutional violation. I was a bit torn on this one because frankly, I don’t think about it much. He cuts in:

To regulate who can get guns would just be wrong. That’s like telling someone that they’re less American, and like I said, I’m not racist and I know that’s not ok.

Sociologist in me, by the way, is fixated on his preemping of any potentially racist remarks. He actually never said anything that sounded racist to me.

So yea, there’s really 3 things I stand for. The right to bear arms is clearly the most important. Socialism is definitely another. And of course, free speech. What do you believe in? What do you know to be a truth?

He popped the question and I sat more tongue tied than I’ve been in awhile. I used to be so principled, knowing what was right and wrong in my world and what ‘my mission’ or gospel was. I tell people how proud I am of my self-awareness and people tell me what a ‘do-gooder’ I am, and yet, I had no answer. I told him that in all honesty, I wasn’t sure, that there was nothing I felt so strongly about where I didn’t see the other side of the coin. I told him poverty really upsets me, to which he replied “Duh!” I said well, it’s not so intuitive for a lot of people. I continued that everyone should have access to good health, which felt like the main right denied to those living in poverty. He asked if that was it, without judgement but with opportunity to expand, and I said yes, I think that is it. 

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this; is that really what my mantra has been reduced to? Granted, it’s not a small mission statement, but I used to passionately argue for it and preempt any counter-arguements that could be made. I used to make sure that everyone understands that health isn’t just physical well-being but mental and environmental well-being too. I used to feel driven to change the world and empowered enough to do it, and staunch enough in my beliefs to fight fearlessly for a good cause.

I have a strong set of values, but I wasn’t able to articulate them to this stranger at a bar. I’m not sure why I couldn’t say that I care about human decency and that I don’t support the death penalty, or that immigrants shouldn’t have to fear deportation while being asked to pay taxes. I would postulate that these beliefs stemming from my values are just internal drivers of my choices, and less so a gospel that I’ve ever needed to present. In a public arena, politicians are the key responders to the “what do you stand for” question, and the answers often sound overtly empty and lacking tangibility. Unlike politicians and this dude at the bar, I felt no need to sell my opinion or beliefs, though I wonder if sharing more precisely and passionately might have influenced anything.

To our new friend at the bar, issues were matter-of-fact, black and white. I respected his background and his grounded standpoint, but it wasn’t necessarily mine. Beliefs and values are important to have, but to me, they are more guidance than matter-of-fact, as they can be molded by circumstance and context. I still can’t figure out, too, what made him sit and want to share his staunch beliefs in such a measured way with strangers. I don’t believe it was for the purpose of influence, but for what then? Validation? Deep Conversation? Fire fuel? Profundity? Pride? And, why did I not feel any of that same desire to share? Weaker principles or apathy? Stupidity? Confidence, or lack thereof? Who knows.

All this is to say that a drunk 22 year old from Florida out with his twin brother and tobacco-chewing parents gave me a disturbingly fun train of thoughts, for which I am grateful. This much I know: I believe strongly in listening to people, strangers or not, sharing their beliefs and really thinking about it, because you never know what you can discover about yourself or the world.

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