Brett and Betsy Miller and their dog Maeby pictured in front of their 2017 Winnebago Travato. Photo courtesy of somethinggigantic.com
On the night of November 8th, 2016, Brett and Betsy Miller were in their Springfield, Missouri living room watching coverage of the presidential election with a few close friends. As the result became clear and the election was finally called, Brett Miller turned to his wife and said “I can’t do this,” and she shook her head as if to say “I can’t either.” It was at that moment that the first inklings of a plan began to form in their heads.
Many people across the country threatened to pack their bags and leave that night, but few will actually follow through. At the end of May this year, Brett and Betsy Miller will. They are embarking on a six-month journey across the United States and parts of Canada to discover how we can bridge the gaps that divide us and begin to mend our broken national discourse. Along the way, the couple will be holding conversations with Americans from all walks of life to try to answer some of these big questions. They plan to document their project, which they are tentatively calling Something Gigantic, with a few long-term writing projects and by blogging, podcasting, and producing music and film.
The Millers found themselves in a unique position around the time of the election. Two months before, they had sold the house they had lived in for most of their entire marriage and were getting ready to break ground on the construction of a smaller bungalow down the street. “What we both meant when we said ‘we can’t do this’ was that the thought of spending the next few months putting the finishing touches on the construction of a house just seemed like complete absurdity because this was just too important,” Brett Miller said. Betsy Miller was set to retire from her job as an elementary school reading teacher at the end of the year and Brett, a forensics and rhetoric professor at nearby Southwest Baptist University, was not far behind her. Their two daughters were out of college and successful in their careers. So when the couple began to take stock of the country’s intensely divided and broken state in the days following the election, they felt like it was time for a big change.
“For the first few days, the thinking was that we were in this unique point in our lives and beholden to no one,” Brett Miller said. “So we said to ourselves, ‘let’s just go, let’s just leave’.” But in the weeks following the election, they began to reconsider their motives. “I’ve never been particularly fond of running away from things, so it quickly turned from a retreat into a pursuit,” Brett Miller said. “This has the potential to completely restructure our society and it’s not okay for us to feel like we just ran away from it. So we had the idea that amidst our travel we would meet people and interview them and try to better understand what was happening.”
After this realization, things moved very quickly. The couple stopped construction on their new home and gave notice that they would be leaving their teaching positions at the end of the year. They sold their cars and most of their possessions and purchased a small Winnebago for the two of them and their dog to live and travel in during their journey. They also began to spread the word about their project and develop a website for documenting the trip, somethinggigantic.com.
However, as the couple’s plans evolved and the world adapted to new realities of division, fear, confrontation, and lack of dialogue, it became clear that their task would be much more difficult than they anticipated, especially where communicating with people with vastly different opinions is concerned. “I’m a firm believer in perspectivism, the idea that if truth exists then we gain a better vantage point on it by gathering more perspectives,” Miller said. “I think the big trick will be finding people who are willing to talk to me on record because what I’ve discovered is that people are becoming increasingly afraid to express their opinions.”
Despite these concerns, the Millers are uniquely qualified to communicate with people on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum. They were both raised in very strict conservative evangelical households in the heart of the country and spent the first part of their lives as hard-line conservatives. Brett Miller campaigned for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in 1984. However, that changed when they met each other and started dating in college. “We were both very conservative at the beginning of our relationship, but then we went away from that together,” Betsy Miller said. They began to become increasingly disillusioned with the political right as well as with Evangelical Christianity.
“By 2000 I’d become much more moderate, bordering on libertarian. But then obviously 9/11 happened and the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration got us involved in the Iraq War,” Brett Miller said. “I think it was their decision to go to war in Iraq that was our first sort of ‘come to Jesus’ moment. We put an anti-war sign in our yard and became flaming liberals from that point on.”
“It’s been a long journey, a long transition,” Betsy Miller said. “But somehow we’ve been on the same page through it all.”
Their first-hand experience with conservative thinking and Evangelicalism is not the only thing that makes the Millers exceptionally well-equipped for the task of talking with and trying to understand people with views that are different from theirs. Their experience as teachers will be valuable as well. Betsy Miller was a first-grade teacher for fifteen years before realizing that her true calling was teaching children to read. “What I really enjoyed was problem-solving and helping kids that were struggling,” Betsy Miller said. “My mom very annoyingly always saw the other side of every story. She always stuck up for the other person and helped me learn to give validity to other people’s arguments and try to understand them. That’s what makes me good at my job because you have to try to problem-solve and see what the child is thinking and how they are interpreting things.” Betsy Miller hopes to bring these skills to their project and eventually turn what they learn about human nature and communication into a series of children’s books.
Brett Miller spent most of his teaching career as a speech and debate professor and a rhetorician at the highly conservative Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri. “The forensics department at SBU was a pretty progressive department at an otherwise conservative-thinking school, so I was in a unique position to tread that landscape,” he said. “I would challenge students on their beliefs and I was known for pushing boundaries that most faculty on our campus did not, but I respected where I was and that [the university] had the right to define their agenda and their mission.”
The line that Brett Miller walked in his classroom between respecting and questioning students’ beliefs will prove crucial to the project, but he acknowledges that discourse alone will not solve all the problems the country faces.
“I think the idea that this is all a grand academic debate is just not the case and we have to get past that. It seems apparent to me at this point that all the energy we put into establishing the facts and making counter-arguments doesn’t get us anywhere. At this point, it seems to be that the best way to communicate with people who disagree with us is through emotion,” Brett Miller said. “The project is partly an escape and a form of catharsis for us but we also have high hopes that we’ll find something, that we’ll uncover a theme, a trend, or a cluster of ideas that might help unlock this discourse and bring us back together somehow.”