As I approached this assignment, I dreaded the idea of sitting down and asking a list of required questions because my family tends to avoid talking about serious topics. Nevertheless, I reluctantly gathered my mother (Lisa), my father (Malachy), my younger brother (Willy, age twelve), and our neighbor (Sara, age eighty). By the end of the meal, however, I was surprised not only by my family’s willingness to contribute to the analyzation of these complex questions but also by the honesty of the answers they provided. I am thankful that I have been placed in a situation in which it was necessary for me to do this project because if I hadn’t, then I never would have had the motivation to lead an event like this.
My mother is fifty years old, and she teaches kindergarten. She was raised Lutheran but attends Catholic church with the rest of my immediate family. My father is forty-nine years old, and he is a professor at the University of Kentucky for rehabilitation. He was raised in an Irish Catholic family and raised my siblings and me as Catholic. My parents were born and raised on the west coast, in Oregon and Washington. Willy is twelve years old and attends SCAPA, a middle school for the arts. Sara has been our neighbor for years. She is eighty years old, and she lives by herself because her husband recently passed away. I was good friends with her husband, Ed, for much of my childhood, but I hardly ever talked to Sarah; I didn’t know much about her until she shared her background at this meal. She identifies as Methodist and has lived her whole life in Lexington. The conversation took place at my parents’ house in my hometown, Lexington, Kentucky.
At the beginning of the meal, I let everyone interact naturally as I sat quietly and observed. I had previously told them that I would be asking some questions regarding citizenship for a project that I would be writing about, so they were aware of the situation before the meal started. As soon as we all sat down, Sara immediately asked, “Well is someone going to say grace?” This was interesting to me because my family does not pray together before eating a meal except on holidays, even though we do identify as religious. In a polite response, my dad said “of course” and proceeded to recite the Catholic prayer, “bless us oh lord and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty through Christ our lord, Amen.” Sara then explained that she was familiar with this prayer because her husband recited it on a regular basis before she converted him to Methodist. She then asked Lisa what religion she believed in, and Lisa responded that she was raised Lutheran. Sara asked if she had converted to Catholic since the rest of our family was clearly raised Catholic as we had all recited the words of the Catholic prayer. My mother seemed to struggle in finding a response; I knew that she only attends church on special occasions, and when she does, it is to the Catholic church with the rest of our family. She replied hesitantly, “oh yeah, I just go to the Newman Center with everyone else, but I guess I’m still a Lutheran.” An awkward silence followed this comment, so I figured that this was an opportune time to end this interesting period of simply observing and begin the formal questions.
Since the group had already started on the topic of religion, I initiated the question, “does your religious or spiritual identity relate to how you think we should treat other people?” Sara was quick to respond, “absolutely, it has everything to do with it.” She explained how she lived through her faith, and the decisions that she makes are based on her religious identity as a Methodist. My family, however, suggested that they do not make decisions entirely based on their faith, but they do believe that Catholicism encourages people to “love thy neighbor.” Willy, of course, was not invested in the conversation as much as he was invested towards his phone. I asked him, though, about how we should treat people, and he responded that “it’s important to be okay with people that are different.” It was clear that Sara feels that religion is the sole basis of how we treat people, whereas my family seemed to feel that religion and the way we treat people agree but are separate. However, everyone agreed that it is essential to be tolerant of people who are different, as Willy stated.
Next, I asked the required question, “beyond voting, paying taxes, and following laws, what does citizenship mean to you?” Lisa provided all the expected answers, such as contributing to society and helping your neighbors. Sara explained that she thought the underlying responsibility as a citizen is to care for the people who need your help. She explained how she appreciated everything that I have done for her and her husband over the years, such as mowing their yard every week and shoveling the snow from their driveway and sidewalk without needing a request to do so or asking for money. I realized that it always felt like my responsibility to care for them by doing these tasks for them that they are no longer able to do. To Sara, this innate responsibility of caring for those in need is the backbone of being a good citizen because if everyone did this, most of our problems would be solved.
The next question I asked was “what do you think are the best things in our world today?” I asked Willy first. He replied that he thought the best thing in the world today is the people who are working towards developing solar energy so we can stop using fossil fuels. I admired this answer because he clearly had never thought about this subject before and was forced to share the first answer that he thought of, but his answer was about a very real issue today. Malachy said that the best thing in the world is children, and after that, Lisa and Sara agreed whole-heartedly because they both have experienced the joy of having children and could not think of anything better than that.
Curious about what Sara did for a living before retirement, I asked her what her occupation was and how she thought it contributed to her role as a citizen. Sara worked for a credit union. Her main job was to ensure that people could afford their houses. She said it contributed to her role as a citizen because it allowed her to help and advise people who were making big decisions in their life. Lisa, on the other hand, is a kindergarten teacher. She strongly believes that teaching fulfills the role of a good citizen because it provides an education to the children who will eventually run the world. It is important that the future generations are educated so they can think for themselves and solve problems effectively.
The last question I asked was “what advice would you give to people running for office in our country?” Sara immediately classified herself as a registered democrat who votes republican. I found it interesting that even in a scenario where the distinction of political parties was irrelevant, the first thing that happened in response was the clarification of a personal identification with a political party. This, along with other hints that I picked up, further expresses the tendency that Sara had to provide everyone with labels. I noticed that in every story that she told, she would identify every person by their religious identity, political party, or skin color, even if this classification was irrelevant to the story. This seems like a generational trend; older people tend to label things first and make judgments after that, whereas this is not as common among younger people today. Anyway, Sara suggested that the leaders of the country should tell the truth, be professional, and not tweet. Lisa agreed and almost instinctively started listing every problem she had with Trump’s leadership today. This turned into a deliberation among Lisa and Sara in which they discussed what the leader of our country should be like and how one could eventually become that leader. Lisa and Malachy are both strongly liberal in their point of view, and Sara is strongly conservative. However, as they described and ideal leader of the country, their political party affiliation disappeared, and everything they said about what a leader should be was the same.
The main concept that I took away from this experience was that people may have completely different viewpoints or beliefs on a topic (such as religious identities, political preferences, etc.), but between each side there is common ground. My family is Catholic, Sara is Methodist, and religion play roles of various magnitudes in each of our lives. However, we all believe that these spiritual identities help us treat others equally and respectfully. My family has a very liberal stance on political issues, and Sara identifies as conservative, but we all believe that someone running to be the leader of our country should be honest, professional, and considerate of those in need.
People tend to categorize others as democrats or republicans and automatically assume that they are polar opposites. It is true that both sides have different views on problems, but they also share some values. In the class, we learn that deliberation is crucial to solving problems effectively, and in order to deliberate, all parts of the problem must be acknowledged and understood. Then, when all sides of the problem have been considered, common ground and shared values can be found to produce the best solution for everyone. This relates to the article, “How We Talk Matters,” by Keith Melville, because it applies the idea of analyzing all sides of the problem to find the best solution rather than each side repeatedly forcing its own point of view at the other side, which only magnifies the division between the two sides. This activity clearly illustrated that among diversity, people share some of the same underlying values. It is necessary to identify these common values to cross the bridge from how things are to how things should be.
Much of the conversation also relates to the question, “how do we live well together?” The participants discussed their realization that being a citizen is about taking care of each other, especially those in need. They explained that as citizens, it is our unwritten responsibility to help each other and make sacrifices for each other. Living well together is not achieved solely by individual success; it is done by working together with others to create a better world for everyone, not just yourself.