Scene One: Arriving at the airport only to find that their flights were canceled at the last minute due to weather conditions, the two unlikely friends join forces at the car rental counter, setting out for a seven hour odyssey through the night to arrive in time for their scheduled lecture.
Scene Two: Long lines of folks snake slowly to the gate, scan their gate passes and find their places along the wooden benches lining the cavernous, wood roofed open air amphitheater. This is Chautauqua, a venerable institution that hosts a nine week summer program of a very special nature. Ideas, music, the arts and conversation against a backdrop of ecumenical interchange forms the basis of a very wonderful summertime experience. A hum of anticipation rises from the assembling crowd. Newspapers rustle, snippets of conversation about yesterday’s talk or tonight’s ballet can be overheard. The speakers ascend the well lit stage that is home to huge pink flower arrangements and a living room like setting, and an expectant hush settles over the audience.
The place-Chautauqua Institution. The topic-Friendship. The speakers: Cornel West, a black, liberal activist and professor of philosophy and political thought at the Union Theological Seminary and Robert P. George, a white conservative professor of jurisprudence from Princeton.
West and George, two colleagues who met at Princeton University in the 90s shared with us some of the secrets to their unlikely friendship including sincerity, truth seeking and connection. These secrets have helped them forge a friendship over the ideological, theological, and cultural divide and across decades.
So how does this friendship work? Listening carefully and between the lines there are two variables that become clear. Respect and love. Each of these intellectual giants respects the other even though they may not, and often do not agree with opinions and ideas that are diametrically opposed to their own. George spoke about how brilliant West is, and about how much he enjoys their conversations and intellectual sparring. West talked about love and about how when you love someone you sacrifice something of yourself, of your ego, and of who you are, so that you can be together in a shared space. Together they build trust and together they seek truth.
In providing suggestions for the audience about how to continue the dialogue George supported the importance of exposing ourselves to people and ideas we do not agree with. Surrounding ourselves with exclusively supporting opinions and friends creates a bubble and increases the divide.
While the talk was interesting and stimulated thinking on how to bridge political and ideological differences in our world, the most inspiring part of this meeting was what preceded it. Picturing their long drive through the night together in order to arrive in time for their scheduled talk, fires the imagination. These two outstanding thought leaders are not merely poster boys for friendship, they actually live it. You can feel the love in the air between the two, and you can hear the respect in their voices.
All that is left for us to do is to take their lesson of friendship into our lives: the ability to listen, truly listen and then pause before we send back an immediate refute or biting response. Pause and breathe. And then figure out what’s next. Reminding ourselves that not all of our views or opinions are gospel truth, or even self evident human truths. Allowing ourselves to be open, to question, to consider and then to formulate our response. How do two opposing views live together in peace and in love? Chautauqua has given us one beautiful answer.