I have a close friend whom I met in Ann Arbor when I was 13. Ann Arbor is quite a liberal place, and my friend was Jewish, so how she managed to grow up to be Republican and also an evangelical Christian is a mystery. I guess I should have kept a closer eye on her. We are polar opposites, including in our manner of dress, and avoid political topics. I also don’t often mention anything having to do with Buddhism. She mentions God fairly often, but I understand this is in the job description of the evangelical.
Lately she said something about having learned a perfectly legal way to avoid income taxes, which provoked a crisis in our friendship. To me, the shrinking of the common pot of money is very directly about human suffering, and to hear people with homes and cars and swimming pools gloat about not paying taxes makes me angry and heartsick.
I concluded we were finally going to have to go our separate ways, but to give myself a chance to think this over, and without giving her a lecture on my views, I sent an email saying that our most recent conversation had been difficult for me and that perhaps it would be prudent to take a break. I was able to endure for a week, during which I reminded myself that it’s perfectly fine to choose like-minded friends, but underneath, I knew it was wrong to discard a 40-year friendship over something like this. Also, a more or less mentally well human being ought to be able to figure out a constructive way to deal with a pronounced difference of opinion. How can I expect our elected officials to do this if I can’t do it myself?
On the spur of the moment—which is how I make and carry out most of my important decisions—I called her and was warmly received. I proposed that in our next conversation, we each take five minutes to explain why we feel as we do about taxes, and that we then drop the subject. She said, “That’s just want I wanted!” And so that’s what we did. I was thinking that people who don’t pay taxes are harming others—now that I know a lot of homeless people, I can picture specific faces—and that this is cruel, and I still think that, but my friend made a convincing case that she gives as much money as possible to charity, and that because she herself is extremely careful with her money, it drives her crazy to give it to an entity that is not equally careful to wring maximum value out of every cent.
After we shared our views, we each did a brief follow-up, and then we agreed to add taxes and the government to the list of things we don’t discuss. It all worked out well: I got to say what I think, and I understood much better what she thinks. And I retained my 40-year friendship, which I can’t do without.
At the soup kitchen a couple of weeks ago, I was assigned to give out spoons, each wrapped in a paper napkin, and little paper packets of salt and pepper. Several feet behind me were the two volunteers who assist guests with take-out containers of soup, so I also had to field inquiries about that, and it was somewhat hectic at moments. One fellow lingered at my station and told me that I look like Meryl Streep—had anyone ever told me that? I said that I have been told that before, but not for decades, so it was nice to hear it again. He said, “You’re probably about her age, too—early 60s?” Ouch. I’m in my early—well, late-early—50s! I grumbled about this to F. later, who agreed my greying hair is likely the culprit. Looking old and having aching knees are two of the less good parts of being almost 54. Having friends I’ve known for 40 years is one of the more good parts.