You’ll never know the hurt I suffer

or the pain I rise above,

and I’ll never know the same about you.

your holiness or your kind of love

and it makes me feel so sorry.

– Bob Dylan, “Idiot Wind”

A reader responding to my riff several weeks ago on Atul Gawande’s book “Being Mortal” said that it was a break from my “usual data-driven perspectives,” but then added that I was “onto something very critical in relation to how Maine handles its future.”

I’m not sure if this was meant as a suggestion to abandon the boring statistics for further pursuit of the interplay between fear and wisdom that I had stumbled upon, or a call to drop the philosophical and get back to “the facts.” Since the very raison d’etre of this space is reflecting on “how Maine handles its future,” I’ll take it as an affirmation of both: that gathering and thinking about “the facts” can – doesn’t ensure, but can – lead to new ways of thinking about the future.

Three recent events bring this imperative of thinking about facts and the future to the fore: Kate Knox’s Maine Voices column calling for a conversation on race; Gov. Paul LePage’s resubmission of a tax reform package his own party dragged to the gallows of a “people’s veto” just a few years ago, and a community forum on immigration held last week in Portland. Race, tax reform and immigration: all topics accompanied by mountains of facts, all critical to Maine’s future, and all very uncomfortable.

One of the prerequisites of “having a conversation” is listening. You have your say, and I listen. I have my say, and you listen. Then, and this is the hard part, we each try to stretch from our own experience – a set of facts we cannot escape but which we can transcend – and understand the other side. The wider the gulf between the two sets of inescapable experiences – white-black, Democrat-Republican, North American-South American – the more challenging the conversation. Indeed, most of our conversations are easy because they’re usually with people more or less like ourselves, people with whom we share lots of experiences.

That’s why the second prerequisite of having a conversation, at least a challenging or difficult conversation, is courage – a willingness to confront fear, to endure discomfort, perhaps to admit fault, and to allow one’s partner in the process to struggle with the same difficulties rather than leaping on them as signs of weakness.

And the third prerequisite of “having a conversation” is considering facts. We often hear the old saw “You can choose your opinions, but you can’t choose your facts,” usually right after having presented a fact one’s partner in conversation finds disagreeable. In reality, we all choose our facts. Indeed, most facts come from our experience. The point of conversation is not to accept or reject facts, but to consider them, to reflect on them, to put them into context, to try to mesh them with one’s own facts.

In a conversation, I have to listen not just to words, but also to facts. The process requires gathering facts: How many non-whites are there in Maine? What are the implications of expanding the sales tax to services? What is the skill level and entrepreneurial experience of our immigrant population? Without gathering and sifting through the facts both sides bring to a conversation, each side is reduced to shouting the “conventional wisdom” it already had and that the other side finds so unrealistic and annoying. Our conversation becomes an idiot wind.

Like it or not, Maine’s future is certainly going to be far different from what it is today and from what we have become accustomed to over the past several decades. Whether that future proves to be to our liking depends not on our past experience or on our facts, but on our courage.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]