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Solar eclipse brings enlightenment to columnist

By Mark Saal, Standard-Examiner Staff - | Aug 27, 2017

As incredible as it was watching last Monday's total solar eclipse, the truth is that the unforgettable astronomical event accounted for less than 2 ½ minutes of our family's four-day trip to Idaho.

Indeed, the entire eclipse itself -- even if you include the relatively boring hour-plus of partial eclipse on each side of totality -- was no match for the three-and-a-half-hour drive up. Or the seven-hour odyssey home. Or all the time spent planning, shopping, packing and unpacking for this fleeting main event.

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But the lion's share of our trip was spent waiting on the sun and the moon. It was during this time I met Tom and Nancy, our next-door neighbors in the huge makeshift campground the city of Rexburg set up on its soccer fields.

Tom is a 60-year-old born-again Christian contractor from a small town in Iowa; Nancy, his mother, lives in Las Vegas. The two of them were drawn to Southern Idaho for the same reason we were -- a chance to stand directly in the moon's shadow and marvel at one of nature's most awe-inspiring spectacles.

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With plenty of time to kill over the weekend, Tom and I ended up talking quite a bit. Mostly, we told each other our stories -- our past experiences, our current situations, our future hopes and dreams. I learned about his difficult upbringing at the hands of an abusive father, his three marriages, his deep love for his wife and children, and his almost overwhelming yearning for grandchildren.

I'm a pretty shrewd judge of character, and after hanging out with him for a couple of days, I concluded that Tom is a good person. If we didn't live a thousand miles apart, I suspect the two of us would be friends.

I tell you this because many of my other friends would say there's something seriously wrong with Tom. Why? Because, as it turns out, he's about as conservative as they come.

Tom regularly posts items to his Facebook page that mock the Obamas, the Clintons, and "snowflake" liberals. He defends Trump, thinks Hillary should be in jail, and opposes the removal of Confederate monuments. And he clearly has zero respect for the profession I've dedicated my entire life to, as he continually offers up attacks on the "fake" news media.

Come to think of it, it's probably a good thing we became Facebook friends after we became face-to-face friends. Because frankly, when it comes to the political views he shares on social media, Tom and I couldn't be more diametrically opposed.

Despite all this, I really like Tom. He's got a good heart. And I only know this because I got to know him.

Contrary to what liberals think, the conservatives I know don't hate anyone who isn't a white male. And equally contrary to the conservative mindset, my liberal friends don't want to destroy America and freedom.

But that's the narrative both sides have managed to cast -- this fear-mongering attitude that the other side is somehow morally bankrupt and therefore not worthy of infecting society with their dangerous ideas.

Indeed, we've managed to so completely demonize one another in this country that we've reduced to caricature those who don't share our particular world views, who don't believe in the same things we do, who don't hold sacred that which we think they ought to hold sacred.

It's much easier to simply write someone off with the dismissive "racist" label than address the motivations behind their complex thought processes. It's easier to simply laugh at a "snowflake liberal" than to try to understand what makes them so passionate about their causes.

Does Tom help perpetuate this narrative? The evidence on his Facebook page would suggest he does. But here's the thing: If I'm ever going to convince my new friend otherwise -- so that perhaps he thinks twice the next time he posts something that completely marginalizes someone or something important to me and mine -- it's not going to happen by resorting to those same tactics.

Until we refuse to answer hate with more hate -- no matter how justified it may be -- the cycle will simply continue.

So what did I learn on my summer vacation? I learned that I can completely disagree with someone on our core issues and still like them as a person. Tom's views don't make him bad, just badly mistaken. And I trust Tom affords me that same benefit of the doubt.

Going into last weekend's road trip, my greatest fear was that the skies over Idaho would be cloudy, that I wouldn't be able to see the eclipse, and that as a result the entire trip would be a colossal waste of my time. But even if the clouds had been a mile thick on Monday, the trip was totally worth it, because I met Tom.

And as great as it was to see a total solar eclipse? Making a friend who is supposed to be an enemy is even better.

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Friend him on Facebook at facebook.com/MarkSaal.

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