When I decided I wanted to spend this year blogging once a month I made a list of topics I thought I could cover. They were a handful of ideas or concepts I have wrestled with over the last 5 or 10 years: race, motherhood, religion, spirituality, why Coca-Cola is the best dang drink ever created, etc etc etc. This month I sat down to choose one and realized I was missing a topic. I had left out the first step of any of those journeys: Discovery.
I was scrolling through Instagram a few weeks ago when one particular post stopped me in my tracks.
“If you are only in relationship with people who think like you, pray like you, and vote like you then you have made the decision to stop growing. Which is ok if that’s what you want. But just know that diversity of opinions is like fertilizer to the soil of your worldview. Don’t be scared to be challenged.”Carlos Whittaker
Somehow over the course of the last decade while the world has become an increasingly larger, more diverse and vaster place, for many of us, our world views have shrunk down to the size of a small screen, be it a phone or a tablet or a TV screen. For many of us, social media “influencers” tell us the news every morning. Or our TV political pundit of choice yells “Good morning” to us while pounding in to our brains how we need to think and feel about the latest controversy. Between contentious elections, a global pandemic and civil unrest, we have found ourselves running to the comforting arms of those who think like us, pray like us and vote like us because safety in numbers feels real even while the mob mentality is slowly replacing our individuality with group think.
As I look over the growing list of topics I have begun changing my thinking around over the last few years, I can trace the beginnings of those pivots to one thing, relationship. More than ever in the last 5 years, I have sought out or been thrown into relationship with people who don’t think like me, pray like me or vote like me. And in doing so, I have stumbled upon some crucial learnings that have slowly changed or shifted the way I view the world.
Growing up I desperately feared “the slippery slope”. The slippery slope way of looking at the world leaves little room for exploration or compromise because you never know which compromise or which new concept might accidentally send you tumbling down the mountain where Absolute Truth no longer exists. And the lack of Absolute Truth means the world is most definitely going to hell in a hand basket and, for some strange reason, the slippery slope always ends with people doing things they most definitely should not be doing with goats. This fear of the slippery slope caused me to create a world view where only black and white existed. There was only 100% right or 100% wrong. Questions were not necessary. Curiosity led only to the slippery slope and that whole thing with people and goats. Whenever gray entered the picture, my brain couldn’t cope. It would run for the easiest, squishiest answer.
I’ll never forget when I was about 12 years old, my mother blew my mind. We were traveling down the road in a car together. She was probably ferrying one of my two siblings or me to a practice or youth group or school activity when we spotted one of those “Abortion stops a beating heart” bumper stickers on a car ahead of us. She casually asked me what I thought of that. I dutifully rattled off my good Christian Southern Baptist schoolgirl answer about the horrors and sinfulness of abortion, feeling pretty proud of myself for handling such an adult topic so deftly. She listened patiently and then asked, “But what if the mother’s life is in danger? What if the baby’s likelihood of survival is low? What if the woman’s pregnancy was the result of rape or incest? Then is it still so horribly wrong and sinful?” I’m pretty confident the mind blown emoji we all use so often today was somehow crafted from that moment I experienced. She wisely let me sit in the awkwardness and tension of the gray and unknowingly in that moment granted me the freedom to start asking hard questions. She gave me the gift of not having to accept Absolute Truth as absolutely truthful the exact moment it was told to me. She gently took some of the steep grade off that slippery slope. Because the slippery slope way of looking at the world never actually ends with bad things happening to goats. It ends with hard lines, judgement and absolutely no grace.
I once heard someone say it’s really hard to hate someone close up. The fascinating fact I uncovered when I opened up my life to people who didn’t think like me, pray like me or vote like me was that there were far fewer true villains in the world than I had previously believed existed. When we limit the shaping of our worldview to pundits or influencers or other un-relational ways of learning, we remove the humanity from “the other side”. We begin to believe anyone who doesn’t think, pray or vote like us is at the worst, true evil, and at the best, intentionally trying to subvert our world into chaos or hell. When I have gotten to know people who grew up differently than me I begin to realize that people grew up differently than me. And those experiences have taught them just as much Truth as mine, just from the other side of the coin. As a white mother, I don’t know what it’s like to remind my child to keep his hands out of his pockets when we walk through the store together. As someone who feels comfortable in my own skin, I don’t know what it feels like to pray every night I could wake up the opposite gender. But when I have conversations with and enter into relationship with people who have had those experiences, I realize our differences of opinion aren’t steeped in one of us trying to beat down or succeed above the other. The world looks different from the other side of the world. And that’s ok. A person who fights for and votes for transgender rights isn’t actually trying to bring the whole world down in flames. Someone who fights for and votes for the right to not vaccinate themselves or their child isn’t trying to beat down science and kill other people. Chances are if you enter into relationship with most people, you will find real heartache, real life experiences, real fears and real hopes that motivate those decisions. And they are just as real and valid as yours. And the beauty of it is, we don’t have to all agree. But we do all have to agree to listen.
This, I think, is the hardest lesson or truth I have uncovered in the last 5 years. We must all do our best to listen to understand, not listen to debate. Or, if I can take it a step further, not even listen to reach agreement. Just…listen. If you find yourself lining up all of your counterpoints and arguments while someone else is talking, you aren’t actually listening. You are prepping. And it’s so hard to not prep! I hate awkward pauses and silences in conversations. It’s my kryptonite. I want every conversation I take part in to have the well timed pitter patter of an Aaron Sorkin script or an episode of Gilmore Girls. In the last few years, I have had to learn to be ok with silence after the other person speaks. I have had to learn to only be able to respond with “Wow. Thanks for sharing that. I need a second to think about that a little more.” This becomes even harder when the person I am talking to is expressing how my actions or inactions have harmed them. Because I want to defend myself! I want to defend why I think, pray or vote the way I do!
But I have never found that kind of listening to actually be beneficial at the end of the day. When I listen to debate or win, I usually walk away feeling like I have lost, even when I might have “won”. Listening to understand leads you to a place of being able to ask more questions, of realizing there might be more than one way of looking at any given topic.
Real life confession: I am a TERRIBLE eavesdropper in public. My poor husband has learned to watch for the telltale signs of my not listening at all to him but most definitely listening to the couple behind us at dinner. It’s awful. I admit it. But every once in a while, it helps me listen to understand. Here’s a real life example that will most likely give you insight into just how bad my eavesdropping has gotten:
Over spring break my family and some of our friends rented a cabin in a very remote part of Georgia in the Blue Ridge Mountains. And I mean remote. I know this area of the country has recently experienced a tourism boom during the pandemic, but I managed to find us an amazing cabin in a town literally no one had heard of. One afternoon I had to make the journey down the mountain to the tiny town that had the only grocery store for miles. Along the way I was marveling at the amount of Trump flags and confederate flags that seemed to blanket my path. By the time I walked into the grocery store 20 minutes later I had made up my mind about a whole lotta things about this tiny town. My slope was slippery and it led only to conspiracy theorists, back water hicks, and of course those poor goats, but this time with a small militia of rebels violating them.
When I got to the check out with my purchases, I found myself behind a man in his 20s who was chatting with the 2 young women behind the register. It was obvious they knew each other well (because, small town) and they were just chatting away about life. And as I eavesdropped, while pretending to be VERY intrigued by the latest celebrity shenanigans plastered on the magazine rack, I began to realize just how off the story I had told myself in my head about the people of this town really was from their reality. I began to see their humanity. I heard their fears about just being able to financially survive right now. I heard their experiences of loss and I heard their hopes for a better future. And I still most likely won’t think like them, pray like them, or vote like them, but they aren’t my “enemy” anymore. In 5 minutes of “listening”, fine, eavesdropping, I began to understand where they were coming from. And how little of a threat they actually posed to the world I hope to see come into existence.
Don’t let your worldview be shaped solely from a tiny screen. It’s a big place out there, with lots of people, who have had lots of incredible experiences, including yourself. Add your voice to the conversation but listen more than you speak. There is a falsity out there right now that the world has never been more divided. It’s not actually true. Historically, it’s just not true. But we are in danger of swapping our passion for humanity for a passion of simply being “right”. And that, my friends, is the actual slippery slope that leads to those poor goats.