There are three roads we can take when we find that someone holds entirely different values from our own. Imagine a giant, impassable canyon between two lands, each side holding fiercely to their own safe, sustainable territory and believing the other side to be one of dark, brutal ignorance. I am speaking first of personal relationships, among family, friends, coworkers, neighbors and community. Navigating those arenas alone is a milestone for most of us. To be honest, I am not equipped to rally on a global or even national level. Today, I am speaking directly to the individual and the others with whom they must personally contend. After that, we rely upon the media and our chosen leaders to give us the truth, and that, my friends, is for another conversation.
One response to our personal fractured relationships is to avoid and judge, which is often swollen with contempt, and taps a deep pain of feeling misunderstood. If you cannot understand me or my people, I will stay away and protect myself. I will build my own army, and there will be only US and THEM. The reason this way looks peaceful is because we stay on our own side and never cross into the land of our enemy. But it is not peaceful. It is a temporary truce with wary implications. We stick with our own, but we vilify those who do not belong. Eventually, divine interventions and occasional human need will catapult us across the divide, and then terror and war will strike.
Another choice is to follow the opposition only when they are around, thus creating an inauthentic illusion of peace. If I don’t like what you stand for, I will just remain passive. I will play nice and secretly abhor your ways. I notice this happening when people say that it is your business if you are gay, or stupid, or colored, or divorced or married, old or young, poor or privileged, or of a certain religion, but I am only tolerating you as a gift of generosity. See what a good person I am! I don’t care what you do, as long as it is on your land and not mine. I will remain inflated and condescend when I must. The two lands remain separate, steeped in superiority, since people generally see right through this tactic.
I suppose I am willing to fight pure, raw evil. Yet, how often do we determine that there is evil within something for which we have almost no deeper knowledge? How often do we declare someone a demon, when we are treading in foreign territory and cannot even speak their language? Too often, I think.
The third option is the most challenging. It also requires our most spiritually fit state of being.
We can do this one if we are ready, but it calls forth some pretty impressive acts of unparalleled love and true courage. There is no room for ego-driven fear or distorted pride.
When I am up against another human being, whom I perceive as potentially antagonistic or vastly contrary to my truth, I am learning to take this rare and effective approach, but it requires something for which I have not always been capable. It requires a deep belief on a grand scale, an eternal longing to bridge the divide, to bring unity and secure a common ground. I don’t do this for the sake of others; although, it can certainly benefit others. I do it to hold myself accountable. If I fall from this state of grace, it is no one’s fault but my own, and I am the one who suffers in spirit. Spiritual warriors can not survive in a state of disdain for others.
Humans are very quick to make false assumptions based on limited information, and they become very ‘all or nothing’, which simply incites prejudice and scorn. We even build a case over time to justify our hostility. We ignore the whole picture: we neglect the act of learning more.
This third road to righteous peace creates a bridge across the divide, so that we can come closer to feeling safe and knowing an authentic calm:
- Be the curious observer. Enter the realm of the opposition with a sincerely objective and open desire to understand. Watch with the eyes and ears of a scientist. Stop taking it personally. Note all of the behaviors, not just the ones you find offensive. Give credit to the positive where it is due. Record in your mind the reasoning of the opponent. When we understand how someone thinks, we gain grace and wisdom. For a short while, suspend your opinions and learn more about theirs.
- Take your own inventory. If I am harboring guilt and shame, I am incapable of seeing others as they are. Worse yet, I am blinded by my own sense of inferiority. When I have done the work to mend my past actions, it is much easier to see others with compassion. It becomes possible to accept that they may never like me, but now, finally, I am more resilient and carry an ease in my heart. Because I’ve addressed my own shit, I am strong. If you think you are exempt from this step, you are sadly in denial.
- Validate when you can. When people feel that you have really listened to them, they soften. They need to be respected as humans and that means telling them what you do understand. We recognize where it all makes sense and their emotional world is honored. “I can understand why you feel that way.” This is pure gold on the bridge across the void. When I humbly sit with someone’s truth, I feel my heart fill with love.
- Ask questions. One of the most insightful discussions I have ever held was when I learned what it was like to be homeless, why it can be a choice, why it happens, how it remains this way. On the same note, I had just as much to learn about what it was like to live in significant affluence. Both have their own culture, their own codes of conduct, and yes, their own real struggles. This has been a gift as I would teach English to students on both ends of the continuum and could then provide sensitivity to the issues that arose. I don’t ask leading questions or rhetorical questions. I ask authentically interested questions with no idea what I am about to hear.
Any time we come to an impasse with others, it is likely we will have much to learn from each other. I am fascinated with the enemy. I can see that my higher power puts them in front of me so that I can grow. It helps if they wish to learn as well. However, I find that I often need to take the first step across the divide. I often need to wave the white flag and invite scary people to reveal themselves fully. I wish to see the child inside the imagined monster. I also have a full belief that we all have monsters inside. Let me love you anyway. You are no better or worse than me, even if you think you are. I must lead with an honest desire to promote a mutual healing if I am to walk freely in this life. Let me be the bridge. Let me at least try.