As an unusually warm mid October day came to a close in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, I raced downstairs in my Western Kentucky University t-shirt to the sound of expectant knocking at the door. Thoughts of indifference and relative unease swirled through my head as I neared the hungry guests waiting patiently outside. With little excitement for the Kentucky Kitchen Table assignment facing me, I focused on the incredible smell of my mother’s famous pot roast emanating from the kitchen. Opening up our home, our two guests, Karen and Paul, stood before me at the entrance before eagerly coming into the sweet aroma of homemade cooking.
Hearing the sound of our guests, Jan, my mom, raced over to the hallway to exchange hugs with Karen, her old roommate from college at the University of Louisville, and her husband, both chemical engineers. After my dad, Nick, told some corny jokes, we all headed outside to enjoy summer’s last fling before the fall sun quickly disappeared below the horizon. As I sipped on my iced water with my brother, Chad, I silently dreaded the imminent awkwardness of asking family friends of their views on citizenship and society as a whole.
Bellies rumbling, we collectively decided to get ready for dinner as the natural light outside slowly faded into nothingness. As twins, Chad and I softly sighed realizing, even at dinner we would have to do some schoolwork.
Lighting the candle and dimming the lights in our cozy kitchen, I set the tone for an intimate and revealing conversation where everyone could talk freely. Diverse not in race or socioeconomic class, we all gathered around the table as friends of different religions, jobs, and, most importantly, perspectives on the world. Though largely of the same political mindset, I was thoroughly surprised at the difference of opinion that would ensue on issues of citizenship and society throughout the night.
As we passed the lemon salad, pot roast, macaroni and cheese, green beans, and mashed potatoes around the table we made small talk about the delicious feast that lay before us. Though we did not pray before eating we each implicitly went around the table and told something we were thankful for in an almost Thanksgiving-like manner, mostly commenting on the importance of family and friends and the beautiful spread on our many plates. With six people squeezed around a table for four, we dug into our food with relish as I prepared my first question in my head.
And so it began with the first shaky question out of my mouth: “Besides for paying taxes, and voting, what does it mean to be a citizen?” Through the ramble of clanking dishes and chewing mouths, without hesitation Karen chimed in that citizenship was truly about contributing to society. Though interrupted by Nick’s slight tangent on the issue of not being able to contribute to society’s political discourse because of the staunch politically correct culture that embodies American culture at the moment, Jan largely finished Karen’s thought that we may all contribute through supporting the economy through our purchases, and helping others in need.
Karen continued her point about contribution as she cited her own personal endowment to the local community. After the horribly upsetting news about the UofL men’s basketball program the in the past month, she typed and sent a letter to the University of Louisville Board of Trustees to speak her mind about the corruption and ineffectiveness of the athletic program as an avid fan and season ticket holder. Though she recognized her letter probably received little attention at the meeting, Karen expressed just how much better she felt as she properly expressed her opinion through the undeniable right of free speech in American society.
The normally quiet and reserved Paul related that in providing a safe, reliable, and rewarding workplace to his employees at his chemical engineering firm he was doing his own part in providing to society. As more and more comments flooded in about economic security in our communities, Jan’s comment of the necessity of feeling as if we all support ourselves and the society harmoniously struck me as she continued that it proves imperative that we all have a stake in our communities, whether it be through our work and services we offer to other citizens, taxes we pay to help keep the economy, and our society as a whole afloat, or simply working to be a productive member for our own families and by default contributing to the wellbeing of the population of Louisville and Kentucky.
Through continued remarks of just how delicious the pot roast was and probing questions into the location of the butter, we moved on to the idea of “ideal communities” as I began to appreciate this assignment more and more. With her boisterous views, Jan immediately talked of the ideal community in which everyone was working towards the greater good for their families and consequently working towards the greater good for the community as a whole. Recognizing that unemployment was a real issue that plagued many Americans she didn’t mind the idea of welfare and government help to get people back on their feet, but held that everyone should contribute in any way they must while unemployed whether it be through helping the local daycare where their child attends, or actively searching for a way to a better life through persistence and will to not be “a bump on a log”.
With a variety of agreeable comments and the occasional “teach a man to fish” parables, family and friends held firm in their prescription to fix the ailments of society through each individual’s hard working contribution. Though interesting, by far the most resonating idea came from Paul who related his experiences of living in Denmark to the ideal community. I know personally that Paul would never subscribe to the principles of a socialistic government like they have in the very liberal Scandinavia, but even through these convictions he greatly praised the incredible trust the Danish people have in each other and their government giving examples of the government run child-care system and people leaving their babies unattended in their strollers out on street corners while in stores due to such deep confidence in their lack of harm.
Hearing this, I was incredulous at the thought of complete faith in and reliance on the workings of the government and the everyday person as the ever-so polarized American political system exposes and perpetuates American citizens inability to get along with one another and work towards the common goal of happiness and success for all. It seems to me that we are so focused on our political and ideological convictions in this country with two incredibly opposed political points of view, that we forget that most of us really do wish for the betterment of society. Through our lack of understanding one another, both liberals and conservatives alike, we find ourselves facing a wicked problem of our own creation: the ineffectiveness of communication across arbitrary political, racial, theological, and socio-economic divides in our equally as wicked battle in identity politics.
As the conversation ensued, I was constantly reminded of the numerous selections we read in class and their application to real people’s experiences and frames of mind. When we arrived on the topic of global citizenship and its meaning to each of us, quotes and memories of seminar discussions about the necessity for us to make ourselves look at the world from the standpoint of our global effect on one another came flooding back into the forefront of my mind. Though views ranged from never subsidizing and supporting monetarily other countries to our absolute need to make sure other countries do not fail their own people, we all came to the unconditional conviction that we must stand up and speak out for the defense of basic human rights across the world.
I found it quite interesting that at a largely conservative-minded table that stereotypes the focus on the individual and the patriotism of America, everyone saw it imperative to protect and serve our fellow human beings around the world when their humanity was threatened.
Finishing our scrumptious home-cooked meal in the comfort of friends and family, we relished in our gratefulness for one another and our friendship that we shared. Taking the last morsel of mac and cheese on my fork I came to the slow but enlightening conclusion of the importance of this assignment in its ability to start a conversation towards solutions of everyday problems in our local communities and larger society. This idea of proper, intimate, and friendly conversation struck a chord with me in an American society that seems to idealize the polarization of our differences to such a degree that we cannot seem to progress as a unified people. As we focus more on white and black, Christian and Muslim, conservative and liberal, and straight and gay, we lose sight of our shared experiences, and more importantly, our shared humanity. Though it may be hard to believe, most all citizens desire to find betterment not only for themselves but for others in our society and world. If we ever truly want to pioneer a more accepting, trusting, and loving world where everyone works toward society’s advancement, we must learn to communicate not for our differences, but despite them.