Overcoming bias

From time to time I will mention having grown up near the mountains in Montana and the fact that when I moved away from that state I fully expected that I would soon return to live there. I think about the simple fact that my life didn’t work out that way and that i have not returned to that place. My friends can sense a bit of longing in my heart and will make comments about how things did turn out. They remind me that I live in a beautiful place, which is true. Despite a kind of nostalgia about my growing up years, I am truly fortunate to live in a place I love. I’ve lived in my current house more years than I have lived anywhere. I enjoy waking to deer in my yard and watching the turkeys come and go. I like my neighbors and I love the work that I do. I count myself among the most fortunate of people. Life has been good to me and if I occasionally wonder how things might have been different, I do not intend to be complaining.

It is interesting to me how certain biases in my life have been challenged by experiences that teach me to question my assumptions. My grandfather endured some hard times in North Dakota. Born in a sod sack to homesteading parents, their family was among the fortunate ones who were able to stick it out and form a successful farming operation in Dakota Territory. When North Dakota became a state, they endured the ups and down of the farm economy and the weather. As an adult, he nearly lost the farm during the Great Depression and they endured some pretty lean years. So when he saw the opportunity to sell the farm and purchase a gas station in Montana, he picked up his family and moved on. That all happened before I was born, so when the stories were told, they had been stripped of tales of the good times in North Dakota. It wasn’t until after my grandfather died that I learned about the grandeur of prairie sunrises and sunsets, the community of friends and neighbors and many other things that had been left behind. Folks in Montana tell North Dakota jokes that don’t portray the people of North Dakota in a positive light. My grandfather told the jokes along with the rest and when he was challenged for an off color joke, he’d reply that his winters in North Dakota earned him the right to tell those stories. My grandfather was able to sell his first service station and move up into the mountains to secure his retirement with an investment in the tourist economy. He took to the high country very well. And I grew up with geographical biases as well. Real mountains soar above the tree line. There are no mountains in the Dakotas. And when a family vacation included a stop at Wall Drug of Mount Rushmore we were reminded again that they call the Black Hills hills because they are not mountains.

Moving to North Dakota was, for me, a temporary solution to the simple fact that there were no United Church of Christ congregations seeking a full time pastor when we graduated from seminary. The towns where we moved were not that far from the Montana boarder and we got used to driving home for holidays and vacations. I remember rising one Christmas morning after finishing our Christmas Eve services, loading our infant son into the back seat of our Ford Pinto and bucking snow drifts across southwestern North Dakota and southeastern Montana for four hours, worrying about running out of gas for the last half hour or so of the trip. We finally found an open gas station in Miles City, Montana and the roads improved for the last three hours of the trip. We had Christmas dinner with family. Looking back, I’m pretty sure that I’d wait for the snow plows to get out before tackling such a trip these days. And I have an all-wheel drive car now.

The blessing of living in North Dakota was that I discovered how wrong my biases were. The people we served and our neighbors were intelligent, educated, thoughtful and caring. They were happy and they had a love for the prairie and a joy in sharing its beauties. They invited us into their homes, shared meals, and told us stories of neighbors helping neighbors. I learned that the landscape is not bleak or barren. The national grasslands are teaming with life. the land “where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play” is truly spectacular. I know a few places where I can go to this day where there is no sign of human habitation other than the highway and the fence next to it. There are hilltops where you can see for miles - as far as you can from the top of a mountain. And if you were to experience car trouble out there, the very first car that cam along would stop and offer help. And those people are good help, too. They knew how to fix things themselves.

I have lived a life that is remarkably free from loneliness. I’ve always been planted in the mist of good people. I have friends from my North Dakota days who are still my friends and we love to get together to talk. I doubt that we’ve ever voted the same way in a major election. We don’t share the same opinions on dozens and dozens of topics and we know that this is so. But we are good friends and we would do whatever we could to help each other. We share the same basic values and the same faith.

We are daily bombarded with stories about the deep divide in America. Partisan leaders speak as if we should consider those with whom we disagree to be our enemies. But it just isn’t so. When we reach beyond our biases, we find that those we labeled “other” are very similar to us indeed. Our biases are almost always wrong. And sometimes, through the grace of God, a kid from the mountains of Montana is allowed to walk on the prairies of the Dakotas and discover how wrong his thinking had been.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!