The great philosopher Mick Jagger once said, “You can’t always get what you want / But if you try sometimes, you just might find / You get what you need.”
After nearly four years of President Donald Trump and his enablers, what I want on most days is an avenger. There is much to be angry about. But after watching the Democratic convention last month, I realized that what I need looks a lot more like Joe Biden and his empathy.
Believe me, I am no Biden. I do not give out my cell number to everyone. I don’t make personal connections with elevator operators and celebrities. But the times in my life when I have been open to diverse views and have really tried to listen are the times I have learned life’s most important lessons.
It is relatively easy to be open to your inner circle. It’s a lot more difficult to be open to those you disagree with, or those whose life experiences are far different from your own. Let me share a few examples.
In 1970, when I was a long-haired, extremely anti-war freshman at UC Santa Barbara, at the urging of a close friend, I took a military history ROTC course taught by Army Capt. Bloodhart. His name was really Bloodhart and he had recently returned from a tour in Vietnam. He was an UCSB alumnus and believed the Army was an important institution that needed to be part of the wider community. He believed that interaction and communication between the Army and the college campus made both institutions better.
As the only non-ROTC student in the class, I developed a respect for Bloodhart and much greater respect for those who were willing to put themselves in harm’s way. The class increased my opposition to the Vietnam War, but it also increased my respect and support for our troops.
Now 50 years later, when the armed forces are one of America’s leading institutions supporting inclusion, I see how right Bloodhart was.
When I was in Chico in the 1980s, I was one of the very few people ever nominated for but rejected by the local Rotary club. My case was not helped when Chico News & Review ran a story about government subsidies for rice growers, many of whom were members of Chico Rotary, or by my questions about admitting female members. Five years later, times had changed and the Sacramento Rotary admitted me, not long after they started admitting women. Now I am a liberal guy, and although the club had hundreds of members, it had very few Democrats. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Rotary. Most members wanted to give back to their community. I found impressive people of good character on the political right as well as the left. And a few bastards on both sides as well.
From both of these experiences, I learned about interacting with others who had very different life experiences and beliefs.
On a Sunday morning in the spring of 2002, I was sitting in the pews of Trinity Episcopal Church, listening to the choir. I was reminded how on Sept. 11, 2001, I heard National Public Radio play the Judy Collins recording of “Amazing Grace.” It moved me to tears.
Sept. 11 exposed many divisions. Collins inspired me to consider that music could bring us together. Perhaps every religious tradition has its own “Amazing Grace.” On impulse, I called Memorial Auditorium and booked it for Sept. 11, 2002. The next day, it hit me that I really did not have any idea what I was going to do. With the goal of finding Sacramento religious musical groups for this event, I started attending faith services all around town to hear their music. I showed up at services unannounced. Since they did not know me, I figured I could develop a great lineup for my interfaith event without ever having to reject anyone.
What I had not expected was how much the religious services would impact me and change my life. Even after choosing who would play at our incredibly successful Call for Unity Concert, which evolved into a benefit for interfaith Habitat for Humanity home builds, I continued visiting religious services. This was a weekly treasure chest of insight and experiences.
I remember the first time I went to a Russian Baptist church. I had only driven to West Sacramento, but it felt like being in Ukraine for two hours. I experienced the joy of rocking out with the gospel choir of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Oak Park. In the packed pews at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, the attendees were as interested in the babies being passed around as the sermon.
I attended about 200 different services in Sacramento, with the goal of going to as diverse a range of religious organizations as possible. At Buddhist, African American, Muslim, Sikh and Hmong congregations, people went out of their way to make me feel comfortable. Although I would make small mistakes, like not knowing when or where to sit or stand, no one ever seemed to care. When the service was in a different language, frequently someone would come over and translate for me.
Through these experiences, I discovered the incredible diversity of people who live in our community. One concepts I heard repeatedly was that there are many paths up the mountain, but they all lead to the same mountaintop. I came to appreciate the many different paths.
But while they were so different, they shared similarities. All groups delighted in babies and their children’s accomplishments. All had traditions around births, coming-of-age, marriages and deaths. All believed that you are part of something bigger than yourself and that you should give back to your community.
And now in 2020, these lessons are even more important. We need to listen. We need to find common ground. We must show respect and compassion for those we disagree with. Biden has inspired me to become a kinder, more empathetic person.
So, as Mick Jagger said, it is not about what we want, it is what we need. We need to be empathetic like Biden, whether we support him or not. We need to be personally involved in reducing the polarization. For me, that means listening to and trying to better understand the 40% of Americans who support Trump, and perhaps to even find some common ground.
I will try.
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.