The other evening we accepted a ride home from a friendly fellow we'd never met before, and on the way began to learn of his life's comings and goings and such. He was, we found out, a latter day ''hippie'' - now without long hair - who had left the City, hitchhiked west to Oregon to see what he could see, and had wound-up living on a commune for several years. He loved Oregon and loved learning about self-sufficiency, about different people, and about the beauty and intelligence he found in nature.
After a while though, he could feel it was time to move on. There was more to learn elsewhere, he knew. So he had come back east, finally, to help out with his father's insurance agency. As it turns out, he actually likes being back. He has bought a home computer (much to his own surprise) and has been using it as a networking tool for social awareness. He has also been reading.
''I've been getting into the writings of the Founding Fathers,'' he told us, ''I'm amazed at the moral vision they had...''
Normally, and without thinking about it much, I'd have called our friend a ''liberal.'' All the tip-offs were there, including the fact that I was sure this was a guy who had read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenancem at least twice. But after talking with him, and hearing not just his political views, but his life-views as well - his deeper sense of the way he feels ideals must connect with action - I realized that he couldn't be labeled simply as a liberal. It was clear to me that he embodied some of the tough-mindedness one might associate with conservatives, as well as the charitableness one looks for in liberals.
So if he wasn't a liberal and he wasn't a conservative, what was he?
The quick, easy, obvious, and wrong answer was that he was a moderate. I say wrong because a kind of becalmed connotation can too often befit the moderate. A moderate might think social awareness is something good to have at a party; or it could suggest one who has a conviction that it would be nice to join in an arms control rally - just so long as it doesn't get too overly humid outside. We , however, were tooling home that night listening to a fellow with shining, sober eyes who was talking Jefferson, Adams, and profound moral vision. A moderate? We might as well have called Moses a bureaucrat.
Only once home, later that evening, could I see what he was. He was moral. Not only that, he was radical. He was capable of blending the best qualities of both conservative and liberal - much as some individuals are capable of blending together the beautiful strong and loving qualities of both father and mother. His was a flexible balance of logic and intuition which I admired for its lack of doctrine and simple workability.
Again and again I'm slapped in the face by these people who refuse to fit into the accepted molds. Part of the problem is that, having been an impressionable child growing up in the 1960s, I thought the world had to be made up of issues and positions that were either good or bad, right or wrong.
Back then, if your parents were Liberals, you grew up denouncing the war in Vietnam, supporting government programs, and criticizing the police. You also wore loud paisley shirts that came untucked on the way to school.
If your parents were Conservatives, you grew up supporting the war, denouncing government programs, and defending the police. And, though your shirts would doubtless still be untucked on the way home from school, they would not be paisley ones.
Such was the clear-cut atmosphere in those days when the milkman still came to our doors in the morning - golden days, it seemed, of space exploration, technological salvation, and no limits to the growth of more household appliances. Without having yet seen the global nature of the problems we face today, nor the interrelationship of those problems, it seemed enough to be either a liberal or a conservative.
In the constantly shifting world of today though, when the stakes are much higher and the problems less removed from our daily lives, it seems a luxury to hang onto those increasingly narrow and often dogmatic roles we cherish as Liberal or Conservative.
One trouble is that both sides seem to see only the negative aspects of the other. The conservatives say the liberals are irresponsible and impractical. The liberals think the conservatives are stuffy and inhumane.
And no doubt there is a good deal of truth to these negative aspects. Both sides can be far too intolerant. Conservatives can place such an emphasis on doing things within certain established patterns that they can too easily fail to recognize the beauty of a figure like the Prodigal Son. The Prodigal does not live safely within the system. He ventures out, makes mistakes. But he repentsm. And instead of bettering his own immediate position, as does the elder brother, he learns something about the timeless truth of rebirthm!
Not that we should suddenly go out and wreak havoc on the system of our lives. One is wary of the liberal who insists too indiscriminately on changing everything and everybody. We don't all have to be the Prodigal and shouldn't feel forced to be so. There is a telling scene in Dr.Zhivagom, when Zhivago meets his half-brother, the Red Party official, for the first time. They stay up late at night discussing the recent massive changes brought about by the Russian Revolution. Zhivago, man of great feeling and soul, points out passionately: You Bolsheviks are so busy cutting out the tumor of social injustice that you forget there must be somebody around to keep the patient alive - by simply living life!
The differences and the problems on both sides of the fence are only too easy to find. What is more difficult, but more necessary, is to seek and understand the virtues. The true conservative feels deeply the need to preserve and defend the good so many of his ancestors worked and sacrificed to establish; the open and progressive liberal feels deeply the need to extend that good. By simultaneously defending and extending, by sacrificing and embracing, we become not just liberals or just conservatives, but radicals - moral radicals. We don't necessarily do what the liberals tell us, and we don't necessarily do what the conservatives tell us. We do what is appropriate to help people. We are then, ''wise as serpents and harmless as doves.''
It is today a question whether or not the standpoints of 1965 are going to solve the problems of 1985. To be a liberal or to be a conservative because that's what we've always been, isn't going to help anybody. Standpoints alone don't solve human problems. Common sense and the appropriate moral action does.
Being a ''moral radical'' doesn't mean the morning milkman will make a comeback. Or that government will suddenly correct itself. Answers and solutions don't miraculously originate in political platforms. That is where they end up.
They begin in that quiet place of still waters where the forum of the mind and the home of the heart are glad to know each other.