Mr. Sakellarion was my 11th grade American Government teacher. He was a short, but robust, Armenian man with a big red beard. Mr. Sakellarion was very wise and an expert in Civil War minutiae. I must confess that I received a detention for disturbing his class. My punishment was to find the name of Robert E. Lee's horse in a stack of his books. (I never found it.)
In his American Government class, we covered hot-topic political issues like abortion, gun control, euthanasia and more. Mr. Sakellarion spent the first few months figuring out where his high schoolers stood on these issues. Then, he gave an assignment to each student. We had to pick a hot-button political issue and make the argument from the other side. I had to argue my opponent's viewpoint. Appalled as I was by the prospect, I took the assignment seriously. It produced in me empathy and patience I had not yet been able to muster for my adversary. Considering the other side of the argument was the only way to move on in a debate. Mr. Sakellarion taught me an invaluable practical and spiritual lesson.
Our desert teacher story for today tells the story of two opponents in a gridlock. The only way they moved forward was by considering the opposite side of the issue. The desert teachers can sometimes seem irrelevant, but surely not today. Cultural and political analysts repeat that we are in a time of increasing division among the people of this nation. We all have our opinions, ideas and beliefs that we want to be affirmed and confirmed. We celebrate every time our claims are supported and scoff every time our opponent's argument is weakened (in our estimation, at least). What would it mean for us to consider the argument from the other side? Could change occur by studying the perspective of those with whom we most vehemently disagree?
The only way to live with our opponents is by cultivating patience. Patience is produced by empathy. Empathy is the product of listening. We don't compromise our values and core beliefs by considering the other side. We just make for a better common life and a more gracious disposition.