Writing this in the midst of the nasty and passionate 2004 general election season, I remember my political coming of age of 12 years ago-or perhaps it is better described as a political balancing act.
I was extremely naïve as a young person and a college student, seeing society, politics, government, social needs, and so forth through a narrow prism, colored and shaped by limited exposure to homogeneous reading material and editorialists in the flesh and in the press. To that end, I postured one mainstream political party to be evil, corrupt and snobbish, and the other to have the answers for all of our societal ills, if only we could open our eyes to their logic and good intentions.
I carried such imbalance into the 1988 election, my first as a voting member of the citizenry. I was convinced that my candidate was far superior to the other, and engaged in several shouting matches and cold snubs with residents of my dorm floor who dared to feel differently.
My views did not change much during the next two and a half years, as I continued to understand politics, people and community through the fringes of the news rather than embracing the center of public life.
All of that changed in July 1991, when I traded my Disney mouse ears for a reporter’s notepad and became the county government writer for the DeLand Sun News, an afternoon newspaper that had been bought out by the Daytona Beach News-Journal. I found myself, having taken just one journalism class, thrown into the task of telling thousands of readers what Volusia County government was up to and why it mattered.
Tackling this job required me to go through an interesting exercise-meeting real, flesh and blood people of all political stripes. Hearing their stories. Developing empathy for their perspectives. Tapping into their passions. And little by little, something happened, something I did not foresee.
I balanced out. I quoted persons of affiliations I had formerly considered monstrous. I pulled the ballot box lever for candidates I had caricatured out of some mixture of ignorance and bliss. I found that my writing and reporting had a depth and a fairness to it that enabled me to receive appreciation-and scorn-from people on all sides of an issue.
Some who know me well may say I swung to the other extreme, trading one blind ideology for another. There may be some element of truth there-after all, The Who declared that the new boss is the same as the old boss, just with a longer beard. But while I certainly have my political convictions these days, I see them more as grounded in having spent years wrestling with issues and intermingling with the people who placed them into motion. To be balanced in one’s thinking perhaps isn’t so much about being able to see merits in every argument available, but to intentionally develop critical thinking skills that provide for a sound defense of why one believes what he or she believes.
And so I must declare that, as much as I came to enjoy less and less of my role as a newspaper journalist, my perspectives on life, politics and people were to a large degree saved by journalism. It was an experience that has helped me to better understand people, be it my spouse, my child, members of my church, co-workers and so-called strangers. It helped me to realize that you never fully know what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, to go home to their house, to feel their pain or their joy.
In general, it taught me that life and people are complex and often more gray than starkly black or white, and not to quickly dismiss them or broad brush them with a label or category. I believe the healthiest people are those who can boast of a circle of friends that includes people of all ethnicities, religious views, political ideologies, and both genders. A balanced way of seeing people is a balanced life. And it is a more meaningful life as well.