The case for talking religion and politics with a stranger
On a recent flight, tarot reader Liz Worth and her conservative seatmate started chatting, with surprising results
BY Liz Worth
“Just unfriend me now.”
I’ve seen this refrain echo across timelines and news feeds repeatedly over the last couple of years. I’ve watched people’s friendships dissolve over differing political views and witnessed brutal public shaming, and even shunning, over differing opinions. This is especially true online; it’s so easy for us to cut ties with each other when conversations happen through a keyboard, and when we can easily escape points of view that challenge us in some way.
But no matter how hard we work to dismiss someone else, the truth is that we are still here, together. We are all someone’s neighbour, child, parent, friend, colleague or confidante.
That’s something I was reminded of on a recent trip. I was on my way to Portland, Oregon, to teach a workshop at a tarot symposium. I had a middle seat on a sold-out flight, between two men who were visibly disappointed when they saw me. (I assumed they were hoping to have some extra room between them.)
“Were you on standby?” One of them asked. “Because I checked this seat before boarding and it was empty.”
“Well, you’re stuck with me instead,” I said, trying to laugh it off. I’m a nervous flyer and hoped this first encounter wasn’t a bad omen.
It was a four-hour flight and the sun was warming the cabin. I was wearing a sleeveless concert T-shirt that exposed the tattoos covering my arms. My distinctly “artsy” look was a stark contrast to the crisp, business clothes my seatmates wore.
Already bored with the book I’d brought, my attention wandered to the man on my right, who was practicing a speech. He caught me eavesdropping and started telling me about the speaking gig he was doing later that day.
I wasn’t surprised that he struck up a conversation—even in cramped situations, I generally find that people light up when they have the chance to share a bit about themselves. And I really like talking with new people, so I kept the conversation going, telling him I was speaking that weekend, too.
Gary (not his real name) got excited. He started telling me about his work, and his life back home on the east coast. A very spiritual man, he was quick to explain he’s an evangelical Christian, which he told me with obvious pride.
“What about you? What do you do?” He asked.
“I’m an astrologer and a tarot reader,” I said.
“I was reminded, as I always am when I meet new people, that we are more than our opinions, politics or online profiles”
I thought this might be the end of our conversation—I’ve learned to be open to any kind of reaction when people learn about what I do. Some people feel they can’t talk to me because of their religious beliefs. But I’m not here to convert anyone, or to convince anyone about the validity of what I do. If someone’s not comfortable with talking further, I leave it at that. So, I waited for Gary to respond.
“Tarot, huh?” he said. “I let a friend do that for me once. It was a long time ago.”
As I expected, Gary didn’t believe in tarot or astrology. But he had a lot of questions for me: “Do tarot readers have a bible like Christians? Do you believe in God? What do you think happens when we die?”
Before I knew it, our conversation had gone from small talk to a full-on theological discussion.
And it didn’t end there. The more we talked, the more differences we discovered. Our views on politics, women’s roles, and environmental issues couldn’t have been more distant. “Everyone should have kids. It’s selfish not to,” Gary said at one point.
I’m childless by choice, so while my mind cried, “Nooooo!” I responded by saying I didn’t agree. But never at any point in time did the conversation become a debate. Neither of us were trying to convert the other. We were just talking, learning, listening and sharing.
I could see why Gary wanted everyone to have kids: He clearly loved his. He was also obviously in love with his wife, and his business. He had a lot of plans and dreams for the years to come, something we had in common. In fact, as we continued talking, we uncovered quite a lot of common ground, like goals for our businesses, our health and our relationships. We even discovered that we shared a similar disdain for hotel gyms (“Every hotel gym is like a closet with two treadmills and a medicine ball,” Gary said) and a love for running outdoors when the weather is just right. We are also both writing books, and I was able to give Gary some tips on my experiences navigating the publishing process.
I was reminded, as I always am when I meet new people, that we are more than our opinions, politics or online profiles.
When you are on a plane with nowhere else to go, there is no ghosting on a conversation once it begins. And the same can be said about striking up a conversation with anyone, anywhere. We can’t just log out when we are right beside each other.
Gary is just one example of many conversations I’ve had with strangers over the years. In my line of work, I cross paths with new people almost daily, but I seek out opportunities for fresh encounters in my daily life, too: In line at the coffee shop, browsing the shelves at a bookstore or in the laundry room in my apartment building. Making these small connections always renews my sense of community, and keeps me open to new perspectives and ways of seeing a world in which there is no singular way to live.
Before I knew it, Gary and I had talked for a full three hours. The plane was starting to descend.
“You know,” Gary said as the seatbelt sign went off and we began collecting our things to deplane, “I’m really glad you were the one sitting in that seat.”