I had an interesting encounter yesterday that illustrated the danger in making snap judgments about things or people based on tags and labels.
As I was standing in front of one of Harare’s public buildings waiting for my driver to arrive, a gentleman approached me and asked if I was a preacher. I noticed that he had a ‘Zimbabwe Chief’ badge on his coat, but didn’t remark on it at first because I was taken aback that he would assume me a man of the cloth. Perhaps it was the dark suit, or the gray hair; or maybe even the stern look on my face, which was only there because my eyes are extremely light-sensitive and I often squint with brow furrowed when outside in bright light.
At any rate, I assured him that I was not a preacher, which led to an interesting discussion of the various theologies in the world. I told him that I didn’t follow any particular faith other than Buddhism as a way of living, because I found something to agree with in almost all of them, and had made a personal decision to ‘take the best and leave the rest.’ A devout person himself, he said, he held to strong beliefs in his own faith, but conceded that I made a good point about the others.
At this point, I gave him my name card, and something interesting happened. As he looked at it, he said, “If I’d known who you were, I would probably have walked away without speaking to you.” He then said, “Because you represent the country that has caused more destruction on earth than any other.” He said this in such a mild, matter-of-fact manner; I wasn’t insulted, but intrigued; so I decided to engage him on this. I pointed out that, while the U.S. is not without its blemishes, such a sweeping statement was not supported by historical fact. I mentioned some of the more egregious acts of violence in world history. He thought about that for a while, and conceded that I had a valid point. He then said that this is what he’d always heard, so he believed it. This, I said, is an example of how little people really know about the world because they’re subjected to propaganda and inaccurate or unbalanced news coverage; people in other countries often know as little about the U.S. as Americans know about the rest of the world, and for the same reasons.
Our conversation went on for some twenty minutes, and while lively, it was fascinating, and we found that we both made points that the other found agreement with. As my car arrived, I said my farewells and thanked him for the conversation. He, in turn, thanked me, and invited me to visit his chiefdom. We shook hands and embraced; two people who’d spent a pleasant morning chatting on a street corner about all manner of things. We disagreed on some, but agreed on more; and all without once becoming disagreeable.
Things, people, are never what they seem at first glance; that’s the lesson I learned, and it’s one that we could all benefit from.