Tuesday, November 25, 2014

vive la différence!

Image from petsfoto.com
Over the past few weeks and months I have spent a bit more time than usual with people who have slightly different views or priorities than I do. It has happened in church meetings, at school, in social settings, and in random encounters. My conservative heritage tended toward steering clear of people with different worldviews, but I have found that real connection with those who adopt another way of looking at things is, in general, good for my personal growth as a follower of Jesus. Instead of responding to different viewpoints as threats (fear-based), I have learned to see them as instructive occasions. This is because they challenge me to differentiate between core values (guiding principles that I live my life by) and superfluous add-ons which are mostly based on preferences, tradition, or culture and which can change in different circumstances and times.

As important as this personal discernment process is, there is another, equally important, relational aspect to hanging out with those who are different. These encounters give me the opportunity to practice empathy, compassion, and unconditional love. But only if I let go of some bad habits which I often use to protect and insulate myself from otherness. Too often self-protection or self-promotion can be our default instead of doing the hard work of accepting and serving others like Jesus did.

Bad habits (don't do these):
1. Name dropping or recounting our past accomplishments: This may seem like a legitimate effort to connect with someone, but it is not. It is quite obvious, at least to the other person, that we are trying to set ourselves up as someone to be admired, someone important, someone with valuable experience, someone who is very capable, someone who brings a lot to the equation. In other words, someone who is better than them. In contrast to this, Jesus suggested that humility is the best approach.
2. Criticizing instead of discerning, feeling superior instead of compassionate: When we see different practices, it is natural to compare them to our own practices. There is nothing wrong with this, but I have to admit that the leap from noting differences to criticizing them is a small one for me. I dismiss others' practices because they are so obviously inferior to my own, so immature, so much less nuanced or sophisticated, so uninformed, so "been there, done that." And that's a problem, because these stinky attitudes will drive people away instead of inviting them to dialogue. I will also miss any chance of learning anything new. Criticism and compassion just don't go together.
3. Talking instead of listening: When I do find some point of connection between a person whose viewpoint is different than mine, I can latch onto that one subject and talk and talk and talk and talk. This is bad news because it tunes that person out, I have become a lecturer and instructor instead of a fellow student, and unless someone specifically asks for a lecture (preferably in writing), one should never offer one. Once again, I have assumed a superior role and that is unattractive.
4. Leaving when things get uncomfortable: I used to do this a lot. I would find myself with a group of people who had different values than I did. I would start to feel uncomfortable and my first instinct would be to leave, to escape, to protect myself. It never crossed my mind that I might have something to bring to that particular situation, perhaps a gift of generosity or kindness or acceptance or hope which would be graciously accepted if I could just get past my fear and be brave enough to offer something. Nope, I just thought about myself. Thankfully, things have changed. Now, when I get uncomfortable in an unfamiliar setting or in strange group, I take a deep breath and ask the Spirit if there is anything I can bring to the party.
5. Pointing out differences instead of celebrating what we share: This is another way of separating ourselves from others instead of building bridges. Jesus was a master at making people feel safe and accepted instead of alienated and inferior. Let me offer the same atmosphere to those I encounter, especially those whom I identify as the other. It helps when I remember that through openness we more easily find our way to repentance, surrender, and transformation. And I love transformation!

Thanks to all those others, those not like me, who have made my life richer and taught me much.

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