Editor’s note: This essay was adapted from a commencement speech delivered by the author May 26 at La Lumiere School in La Porte, Indiana.

At the gym where I work out, I sometimes see a white guy with long blond hair pulled back by a bandana, who wears a shirt that says “Black Lives Matter.”

And there is someone else who exercises in the same gym, a Black man, a little taller and stockier than the white guy, who has glasses and wears camouflage pants and a shirt with the thin blue line flag on it, the one that shows support for law enforcement.

The men run next to one another on the tread mill sometimes. Occasionally the coach will pair them together during group workouts.

Watching them, I find my mind going to a place of possibility.

I hope they strike up a conversation. I hope they discover that they like the same kind of pie but top it with different flavors of ice cream. I hope they argue about politics and religion. I hope they wind up telling one another their stories. I hope they become friends.

We all should have at least one friendship like that. An unlikely friendship. A friendship that confounds other people. “They’re nothing alike,” folks will whisper accusingly as the two of you walk by, deep in conversation.

College is the perfect place for that kind of friendship. But also, Earth in general is. 

If you need a model for this, do an internet search for “Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia — India.” You will likely see a photograph of the court’s famous conservative justice and the court’s famous liberal justice riding together, a bit uneasily, upon an elephant in the land of my birth.

The men in the gym remind me that there are many spaces like this in our society, spaces where people with different identities and divergent ideologies regularly gather and engage each other positively.

We never really pause and appreciate this, but we should. There are cities in other countries where people from different religions operate separate fire departments — and don’t respond to calls when a house belonging to a family of a different faith is burning. And yet, here in America, our first responders serve everyone, and it is common for us to have a doctor or a teacher of a different race, religion, ethnicity or ideology.

This is the great genius of American society and the essential ingredient of diverse democracy.

Think about it for a moment: How do you have a pluralistic nation where people are free to disagree on cosmic matters if they are not also regularly gathering to cooperate on mundane things? Since diversity involves not just the differences in other people that we like, we have to learn to disagree on some fundamental things while working together on other fundamental things.

That’s what we do in our gyms and grocery stories, our schools and libraries, our parks and theaters, our basketball courts and our football fields, our workplaces and our volunteer sites. That’s what a civil society is — the spaces where, through a million genuine encounters, we take each other’s side, stitch a social fabric, write a shared story, build a national identity.

We should cherish those spaces. Inhabit them. Insist on them. Build more.

The other thing to remember about the scene I described at my gym is that each of the figures is surprising, which is to say that they are human beings. Human beings, every one of us, are infinitely surprising. We are poems, not tropes. We’re not meant to simply read the script our society assigns to our ascribed identities. We’re not Russian nesting dolls, each figure like the other, only smaller.

We cannot know someone’s take on politics, or their taste in music, or what they think about morality based on their race, gender or anything else you can perceive on the outside. Our inner selves do not have to exactly match what people expect from the outer shell.

Of course, our identities are part of the raw material from which we fashion a self. Of course, race, gender, religion and lineage matter. But we are the architects.

In his poem “Ask Me,” the great William Stafford wrote:

Some time when the river is ice ask me

mistakes I have made. Ask me whether

what I have done is my life. Others

have come in their slow way into

my thought, and some have tried to help

or to hurt: ask me what difference

their strongest love or hate has made.

That’s good advice for all of us. We should ask everyone in our lives — our parents, our family members, our friends, our teachers, our coaches, our co-workers — if what they have done is their life. Ask them what difference other people have made — those who have helped, and those who have hurt, those who brought strong love or intense hate.

That’s how you create a life, through engagement with people, some who help and some who don’t, some who love and some who hate. We should not shy away from it.

The white guy in my gym and the Black guy — will they help each other or hurt each other? Will it be love or hate? I don’t know. But I know we have to try.

Harvard political philosopher Danielle Allen says that “talking to strangers” is what it means to be a citizen of a democracy. Genuine encounter is the only way to create community.

The poet June Jordan wrote:

“I am a stranger

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Learning to worship the strangers

Around me.”

That’s how we become human. That’s how we sustain our democracy.

Eboo Patel, the founder and president of Interfaith America, is a contributing writer for the Deseret News, the author of “We Need to Build: Field Notes for a Diverse Democracy” and the host of the podcast “Interfaith America with Eboo Patel.” 

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