Working Past the Small Talk

By Lora

I had initially scheduled my Kentucky Kitchen Table with my best friend’s family who would have loved to participate, but unfortunately they had to cancel a week before our meeting. In a panic, I searched my mind for someone else I could have dinner with, and I decided on my high school English teacher who has a wonderful family, but on the day we were supposed to have our dinner, she canceled due to a family emergency.  At this point, I was concerned with what I was going to do. I had gone through my first option and a backup option, and I just had two days to find someone else. My last ditch effort was to sit with some people at my home church at a potluck that upcoming Sunday. I was feeling defeated, but I continued with the project and sat in front of the first  people I could. Little did I know that these people, who I wasn’t particularly close to, would give me new insight and a look into their lives. After having a meal with them, I felt a closeness and connection that was certainly not there before. Needless to say, they completely exceeded my expectations and gave me new concepts to think about.

I sat down with Mark, Ricky, Martha, and Tiffany. Mark, a local newspaper owner in his 40s, was the first to sit with me, and he seemed excited to participate in the project. Ricky, a retired mechanic, and Martha, who is an administrator, were a little less eager to participate. I told them about my project, and because we don’t know each other particularly well, I think they were a little hesitant. However, I was impressed on how quickly they came around. Tiffany, a nurse, is in her 30s practically jumped into the conversation once she knew what we were going to be talking about. I believe that this group of people is diverse because they come from different generations, and they are all in drastically different career paths. Their diversity, however, did not hinder their intellectual conversation, in fact, it may have just helped it.

“Beyond voting, paying taxes, and following the laws, what does citizenship mean to you?” With this question, Ricky and Mark did not hesitate. Their answer was “freedom” right off the bat. Mark, who went to West Point military academy and served in the army for five years, was very passionate about his answer. He felt that the sacrifice that our soldiers make to our country was the best aspect of our country, and his citizenship was based on that freedom. Ricky who served in the army as well, felt that without this freedom, our nation would be lost. Our rights of freedom of religion and speech are unique to us as a nation, and without these freedoms, citizenship would have a very different meaning.

As we progressed through the conversation and I asked some other questions, a common theme I saw was that each person believed in helping their neighbors. This wasn’t a big surprise to me because in our small town, community was everything. In 2008, a terrible tornado ripped through our town and destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes. Our community banded together and organized groups to gather, pack, and distribute supplies to the affected people. I don’t think anyone who was helping will forget the sense of community I know I felt that week of chaos. Mark shared a story of his parents and of a time when their health was going down. He said that the community helped so much by sending food and offering kind words. Tiffany shared a similar story of her mother-in-law. I steered the conversation towards a national focus, and  Ricky and Martha both felt that a good aspect of our nation is that we help each other. We talked about the efforts to help in Houston and Tiffany and Mark recalled the efforts to help in Florida and Louisiana when hurricane Katrina ripped through homes and other buildings. Martha knits prayer shawls for a ministry through our church, and she said that she finds comfort in knitting these shawls for people who needs them. I can recall the ministry sending some to Sandy Hook and many other people across the country. When I asked each person to reflect on their jobs and how that relates to their role in society, each felt that their contribution was helping others with their day to day needs. A writer helps keep citizens informed; a nurse helps people stay healthy so they can make their contribution to society; an administrator helps people stay honest; a mechanic helps people get to work to contribute to society themselves. I think this can be correlated to the central question of how can we live well together. If everyone could contribute a service, whether it be cooking a casserole or policing a town, the world would be a much better place. Every service touches someone in some way: the casserole may touch a grieving family and the police officer may find a little girl’s dog. These services, big or small, give people comfort and happiness, and I think if everyone was at least a little happy, we could start living better together.

When we started talking about obligations to others, I found that the conversation just took off. I asked the group if they felt that they had more of an obligation to their neighbors than to someone halfway across the world. In a reading that we have done, I learned that many people are more likely to be connected to something if it is in close proximity to them than farther away. I was expecting a similar answer from my group, but to my surprise they said that their obligation was the same. I was taken aback by this because it contradicted what I had previously learned, and I asked them to explain. Tiffany said that she felt the same obligation because everyone needs help and that that person on the other side of the world is somebody’s neighbor too, so we have an obligation to them as well. While on the subject of helping neighbors, we talked about some advice to give a neighbor. One common theme I saw was that they wanted their neighbors to try to help themselves before they asked for someone else’s help. I thought about this afterwards, and I thought how I would feel helping someone who really didn’t try to do anything for themselves. I think in that situation, I would feel aggravated, but then again aren’t the people who just accept their fate and don’t try to do anything about it the ones that need the most help? Someone who is driven and ambitious may just be able to make something on their own just from their sheer ambition, but someone who is hopeless needs someone to show them that same drive that can help them. Reflecting on this conversation after everything was said and done really gave me another perspective, and I think that was the main goal of this assignment.

We also talked about issues that are close to us, and Martha and Ricky, who are married, both felt very passionately about helping children who were unwanted by their families. Tiffany shared her interest in drug abuse, and I shared mine about drug companies taking advantage of senior citizens. As we each explained why these issues were important to us and posed facts and figures pertaining to these issues, I learned something. I learned a lot of things, actually. I learned a lot of things about a lot of different issues that I hadn’t thought of before just by asking to hear these people’s passions. This taught me that by simply asking we can find out information about important issues that we may have never heard before, and all it takes is one simple question! I think about friends I have who aren’t particularly passionate about any issue, but is that because they have never heard someone so passionate about something they can barely leave room for someone else to talk? What if we all had passions like the ones set before me? I think that people would find more ways to have more of a say over their lives if everyone was that passionate about issues that affect our society.

I started my meal almost hopeless because it seemed like hardly anyone was eating at the table anymore. I didn’t have very high expectations, and I was ready to get it over with. To my surprise, I emerged with a new understanding of the people that go to my church. I learned that these people who I have known for my entire life are caring and want to help other people as much as they can. I learned that they are passionate about children and drug abuse. I learned that they would help someone they did not know just as soon as they would help their next door neighbors. I learned that you don’t necessarily know someone because you see them every Sunday or you have the occasional small talk. You get to know people by asking them questions about their opinions and beliefs, and you ask them to explain so they feel understood. Through this project, I learned how to listen to my neighbors, how to discuss issues in our nation with people who may not have the same political views, and how to really get to know someone. IMG_2634

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