The Complaints Department opens the instant I unlock my office door. Sometimes the calls start even before I've sat down at my desk. The sound of my voicemail greeting is like an invitation for callers to shout and hurl dehumanizing insults.
In late September, an elderly woman I'll call "Jo G" left me a voicemail message asking if we could discuss Donald Trump. I girded myself for battle and called her back. Things got instantly combative. Why are you always criticizing the president, she asked. Why don't you give him credit for anything? Why won't you give him a chance?
I was calm but firm: Our editorials at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch criticize Trump because he is uncivil and has yet to demonstrate fitness for office. He doesn't apologize for his mistakes. His ill-considered tweets bring shame upon the presidency.
As for our op-ed pages, I told Jo G that I've scoured our syndicated offerings for conservative writers willing to praise Trump. There are none. Conservatives like George Will, Charles Krauthammer and Michael Gerson have nothing nice to say about Trump.
Still, Jo G didn't like all the vitriol. You need to lighten up, she said. So I asked her: Can you name me three things that Trump has done that are worthy of our praise?
Long pause. I pressed her: Come on, now. You're the one demanding that we say positive things about Trump. What should we say?
More hesitation. So I poked and jabbed, insisting that she give me an answer. Jo G became flustered. Suddenly, she broke down crying. "I can't think of anything right now. My husband is in the hospital and he's dying! I just want you to say something nice!" She hung up.
I felt like a jerk. I knew I had to call this woman back, but what could I say? I picked up the receiver and hit redial. She picked up.
"I'm really sorry about how that conversation ended," I said. "You clearly have a lot more pressing things on your mind right now than what we publish on our opinion pages. So what if we just set that issue aside and talk about what's really important in your life right now? Do you want to talk about your husband?"
She did. So we had a good, long talk. This time, I didn't interrupt or pontificate. I just listened. When Jo G was done talking, I told her she could call me anytime she wanted. No arguing. We'd just talk.
A few days later, a card arrived in the office mail, saying "Thank You" in four different languages along with a wonderful, handwritten note from Jo G updating me about her husband's condition (getting worse) and reiterating the importance of finding "good things" to say about other people.
Recently on public radio, I heard a TedX talk by Megan Phelps-Roper, formerly of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. She used to be one of those protesters holding hateful signs like "God Hates Fags" at the funerals of service members.
Having grown up in the Westboro family, Phelps-Roper had never known any other life. She never questioned the church credo that all outsiders were in Satan's embrace.
One day, though, she had a sort of epiphany. Why had she never actually listened to anything that non-Westboro people were saying? The more she thought about it, she said, "I couldn't justify our actions — especially our cruel practice of protesting funerals and celebrating human tragedy."
She said that Americans today "celebrate tolerance and diversity more than at any other time in memory, and still we grow more and more divided. We want good things — justice, equality, freedom, dignity, prosperity — but the path we've chosen looks so much like the one I walked away from four years ago. We've broken the world into us and them, only emerging from our bunkers long enough to lob rhetorical grenades."
We are all so busy girding for battle and going on the attack that we've stopped listening unless the other person marches in lockstep with our own opinions and values. We've learned to be mean as a knee-jerk response to anticipated meanness.
Jo G and Phelps-Roper are right: Americans must figure out a way to ratchet down the anger and become better listeners.
I hadn't heard from Jo G in awhile, so I phoned her recently just to see how things were going. Sadly, her husband had died the day after she mailed that card to me. Think about it. Even while engulfed in grief and crisis, with her world crumbling around her, Jo G had sat down to write me that nice card.
We've never met, but I've reserved a big place in my heart for her. I'll gladly make the time to talk — and listen — whenever she feels the need.
Tod Robberson is the editorial page editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. © 2017 St. Louis Post-Dispatch