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Donuts and debates

The other day, I found myself listening to a heated political debate in a donut shop, of all places. We had stopped there on the way to school to celebrate my son’s birthday.

Two middle-aged men were seated near us talking loudly. It seemed like their regular coffee meet-up, but this particular conversation quickly took a negative turn.

One of the men started talking about the Secretary of State reportedly referring to the President as a “moron”, and it quickly escalated into a debate over immigration. Before I knew it, they were arguing over whether or not the "Dreamers" should be deported.

A couple of times, my son asked me why they were arguing, because the tension was rising and they were on the verge of shouting at one another. I had become so enthralled with the debate myself, I almost forgot the kids were also listening to the exchange. One of the men was getting especially upset and loudly proclaimed that “all of these people coming here illegally are criminals and just trying to get away with bad things.” He got up in a huff and walked off, while another passerby jumped in to echo those sentiments, saying something under his breath about “all those illegals.” Oddly enough, it never seemed to dawn on them that this particular establishment happens to be run by immigrants with foreign accents.

We decided to head out and make our way to school, and as I walked by the man now sitting there alone, he looked up at me and said, “Do you know what I mean? Being an immigrant, here legally or not, does not mean they are all criminals, right?” I let him know that I agreed with him and that I understood his frustration in having an important conversation shut down without listening.

But the discussion didn’t end there. When we got in the car, the kids asked why they were talking about criminals. These types of questions are always tough---what is the best way to respond? What and how much do you share? They understand so much more than we give them credit for and I believe it is our job as parents, not to keep them in a comfortable little bubble, but to help them learn how to navigate the real world with compassion and empathy.

I shared a brief explanation about the "Dreamers" and why people are upset about illegal immigration. But, I also explained that most of them have lived here their entire lives and are productive members of our society. That deporting them means tearing families apart and discarding their contributions to our communities. Many of these people came here as very young children by parents looking for a better life and economic opportunity---the same thing I would do as a parent who only wants the best for my children. We talked about what it might feel like to be in their shoes right now, afraid that they might be sent away from the only country they’ve known to an unfamiliar place, where they don’t have anything or know anyone.

Is it possible for us to stop long enough to imagine the struggle and pain of others?

Beyond the brief history lesson, it was an opportunity to see the world through a different lens and empathize with other people's stories. How often do we look for the best in others? Do we believe that the vast majority of us want the same things: love, belonging, safety, opportunity, hope? Or, is our default to demonize and make assumptions about their choices and motives?

By the time we reached their school, we decided that it is our responsibility to do better -- to ask more questions, to offer grace, and when possible to try to understand the whole story before jumping to conclusions about someone's situation or the choices they have made. To not let fear keep us from listening, and learning, and loving.

Perhaps these are the moments that matter most---the seemingly insignificant situations we often ignore that help to weave the thread of humanity throughout our lives and build character in our children. Who knew that stopping for donuts would cause such a stir and lead to such important life lessons?

“Recognize yourself in he and she who are not like you and me.” ― Carlos Fuentes

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