(Note: This is a slightly revised version of something I recently wrote and posted on Facebook, and then published as my weekly column in the June 23, 2016, edition of the Johnston County Capital-Democrat.)

I recently had a… well, I don't know that it actually rises to the level of being an honest-to-Jed Bartlett "epiphany," but it is darn sure something that bears being shared the rest of the world.  (And if it does qualify as an epiphany then I'm just tickled to death, because I don't know that I've ever had one of those before…)

The problem isn't guns. 

The problem isn't Donald Trump. 

The problem isn't radical Islam or radical Christianity or radical Buddhism. (Is there even such a thing as radical Buddhism?) 

The problem isn't that Zack Snyder makes crappy superhero movies or that people give George Lucas a hard time over his "Star Wars" prequels or that CBS keeps bringing back that stupid "Big Brother" every summer. 

The problem isn't that some misguided souls actually prefer Samantha to Jeannie or Ginger to Mary Ann or Veronica to Betty or Christian Bale to Adam West. 

The problem isn't that Kraft Foods screwed up a perfectly good Macaroni and Cheese Dinner (they did, you know, I don't care what their ads claim), or that I can't go to a White Castle or buy a six-pack of Canfield's Swiss Creme Soda anywhere here in Oklahoma. 

The problem isn't even that some people STILL need to learn how to use their turn signals, drive the speed limit and properly place their vehicle between the lines in the parking area here in front of the newspaper office.

Don't get me wrong. All of these things are problems. And I'll continue to speak out on each and every one of them whenever I think it necessary. 

But none of them are The Problem.

The Problem, it occurs to me, is that somewhere along the way we have forgotten that people can have an honest disagreement about something - anything - and yet still be civil and respectful and even friendly towards one another. 

My dear friend and co-worker, the late Gerry Ratliff, and I used to argue about politics all of the time. I'm a lifelong Democrat whose still agrees with my father that the date of Nixon's resignation should have been declared a national holiday; Gerry was a staunch, no-two-ways-about-it Republican who thought Ronald Reagan was just this side of The Second Coming. Sometimes our disagreements could get pretty vocal… to the point that our boss would sometimes be sitting over there at his desk in the corner with this expression of utter panic on his face, like a soldier looking for an ammunition truck to hide under.

But for all our disagreements, we never exchanged a harsh word about one another or launched personal attacks towards one another. We never called one another vile names, never spoke ill about the other behind his back, never made comments that someone might somehow construe as a thinly-veiled threat. We never questioned one another's right to hold an opinion that ran counter to our own, or questioned one another's intelligence, parentage or basic humanity because of a differing opinion. We never held a grudge towards one another.

And we always - ALWAYS - made sure that we let the other knew how much he was still loved and respected despite such disagreements.

One of my most cherished possessions is a "Thank You" note Gerry wrote to me shortly after his mother passed away. One line in that note can still bring tears to my eyes even today, so many years later: "You are very nearly another brother to me." 

I'm sitting here trying to not well up again as I look at the note. How I miss my dear old friend…

My point is, Gerry got it. You can have a difference of opinion with someone, can hold deep-seated convictions different from that other person's, and still respect, like, admire and - yes - even love them. And he, like me, could not understand why this simple truth seemed so elusive to so many other people.

Perhaps it's best that he didn't live to see what the world has become in the Age of Facebook. I think to say that he would be "appalled" would be an understatement of the highest magnitude…

At what point did we here in America become so polarized that we want to see anybody who does not share each and every opinion that we ourselves hold as The Enemy? When did we become so thin-skinned that our initial knee-jerk reaction to a person who sees things differently than we do is to just dismiss them as "ignorant?"

Understand: I'm not pointing any fingers here. We've all become guilty of this sort of behavior in recent years. Myself included from time to time, I'm ashamed to say, although some of us DO at least try to make an effort not to behave in such a fashion. I can't speak for anybody else, but I will admit that in my case this behavior seems to be some weird kind of self-preservation instinct; it doesn't seem to kick in until someone has launched a personal attack towards me, and then - in spite of my best efforts - I feel practically obligated to respond in kind. 

But I always come away from such instances angry at myself for having allowed that other person to suck me down to their level...

I'm not saying don't stand up for your beliefs. You should. You must. But do so with a modicum of respect for the other guy. Remember that he is every bit as entitled to his opinion as you are to yours. Stop treating him (or her) like some kind of sub-human monstrosity just because you don't see eye-to-eye on something. Even if that "something" may in fact be everything…

If nothing else, just try and remember that the other person IS a person, with people who love them just like you. 

And maybe - just maybe - if we can start treating one another with that little bit of respect, maybe we can start finding things we do happen to agree on and use those things as a foundation for building a sense of compromise, and that in turn might just enable us to start fixing some of the problems that plague this world we all share.

I'm not saying it's a sure thing. Nothing in life ever is. Believe me, I learned that particular lesson the hard way a long, long time ago.

But isn't it at least worth a try...?

(Copyright 2016 by John Allen Small)