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Of all the sentences I've written in my career, this one may be the most surprising.

I am thankful for Tim Price.

It didn't start out this way. For many years, Price, a 66-year-old white businessman from Soddy-Daisy and longtime Times Free Press reader, has been my biggest critic. Undeniably, unquestionably the biggest. Wherever my words went, he was sure — in emails, comments, letters to the editor — to follow.

"You're crap," he'd write.

"Your virtue signaling and wokeism is doing the exact opposite of what you want," he'd email.

"[Cook] sits on his fake moral high horse and hurls insults and race-baiting at the rest of us," he'd proclaim.

In the beginning, my strategy was simple: ignore him. Outwardly, I lathered up whatever thick skin I had. Inwardly? I soon ran out of lather.

"Cook is supposed to be this empathetic, sensitive guy but when someone on the other side does something he doesn't like, his powers of fairness and proportionality go out the door faster than a scalded cat. That is the nature of the liberal mind. They never see the other side," he wrote.

Not my liberal mind, I'd think. Surely, I always saw the other side.

Right?

"With every word you write you make things worse and show your hypocrisy," he said.

Soon, I started arguing with him. This became a dead end. His anger seemed impenetrable.

"This is one angry old white man that really does not care what the left says or thinks ... and is not going anywhere," he emailed.

I didn't see it at the time, but Price — by not going anywhere — was offering me a rare gift. In his consistent anger and loyal criticism of my writing, he remained uncensored, refusing to tiptoe around things or let me remain content in the delusional view I had of my writing.

Whatever self-image I had of my columns, Price rejected.

Somewhere between a pandemic and Jan. 6, I ran out of options. I finally surrendered to the one strategy I hadn't tried.

I set aside my opinions and began to listen.

— "We have to do something to change the media. If not, this country is lost."

— "We conservatives are not going to give up ... Calling us names and saying that it is our fault all the time doesn't convince anyone on our side."

— "Trump didn't push us to that edge. Left-wing politics did. Your extremism created Trump. He never told us what to think, he just said what we have been thinking. He was the expression of our collective disgust with what the liberal politicians, media and the elites have been doing to us for years. If you can't admit that, we will go nowhere."

— "I am angry that the left wants to censor conservatives."

Without an urge to argue or convince, I could instead listen, which led to less judgment, more understanding and conversation.

Why do my columns about race make you so angry?

"When you ... talk about white Southerners, you are talking about me," Price replied. "When you assail my ancestors, desecrate their statues, you are talking about me. That is why I take it personally ... I have never discriminated against anyone. I don't like to be lumped into a group being wrongly accused. Nothing makes people mad like being accused of something they didn't do. Racism doesn't make logical sense to any conservative. It is a waste of time. We want everyone to do well, but on their own merits. Why wouldn't we want racism to be eliminated?"

"The problem is that we aren't evil," he said. "Being depicted that way hurts."

Soon, we began talking about family, work, the Vols, parenting and grand-parenting, even heartache. I know some of the ways Price hurts; he knows some of mine.

We still see the world very differently, but the basis of our relationship is no longer dependent on views and opinions. He helped unmoor my allegiance from a certain set of perspectives, giving me more freedom to consider views and experiences I once ignored or, worse, ridiculed.

Today, I consider Tim Price a friend and teacher.

I do not tell you this, as he might say, to virtue-signal.

I say it with the enthusiasm as a pair of explorers returning home with news of a far world: Look at this land we've found! There is a path out of the political rage and breakdown. We can all walk it.

"There is some hope in getting a dialogue and two opposites making a compromise," he said.

Recently, he asked me to apologize for earlier columns suggesting a Trump-Russia collusion. (A 2019 report found no conspiracy between the Trump campaign, Russia and the 2016 election.) For suggesting something false, I certainly apologize.

Needing to put some affairs in order, I asked him to be thinking of my family.

He said he'd pray for us.

"Hope you are well," he wrote recently.

Thank you, Tim.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com.

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