I recently saw a great picture on Facebook that said, “Why do I wish people ‘Happy Holidays’? Because from 1 November to 15 January there are approximately 29 holidays observed by the world’s 7 major religions. And I don’t think mine are the only ones that count.” Regardless of one’s particular religious tradition, this is an excellent reminder that although I may exist at the center of my world, I am not at the center of the world. I was further reminded of this reality upon waking up the day after the midterm elections.
While I will leave it to the political pundits to sort out the meaning of the election, one of the things that was very clear to me was that it is too easy for many of us to spend our lives in an “echo chamber” surrounded only by those who think like we do, believe the things we believe, and quite often look like us. That is a problem if we want to have healthy communities.
The echo chamber of the familiar may be comforting and reassuring, but it is only a partial view of the world and we forget that at our peril. If we only ever interact with those who are like us, our world becomes narrowed and we are only able to function within confined spaces. We begin to see those who are different as “other” and when that happens we too often react with fear or with hostility.
But the reality is that we are all “other” to someone else.
I have a friend from high school whose life path has been in many ways quite similar to mine. He is in a long-term marriage with two adult children; he, too, is a Presbyterian minister not serving a church; our political perspectives were quite similar in high school and college. But when we re-connected on Facebook a couple of years ago, I discovered that our political perspectives are now diametrically opposed.
After several back and forth conversations over Facebook, I finally asked him, “How did you get from where we were to where you are? I don’t understand.” So he told me. While I still am somewhat baffled by his very right of center views, I have a context for them. While there are still times when his rhetoric is too much for me to deal with and too exhausting to engage, I still check in periodically to see how he is doing or to hear about his grandchildren. He still, I think, sees what I post online and I occasionally check out his posts. In the language of Facebook, I stopped following him, but I couldn’t bring myself to “unfriend” him. We are still connected by our shared history and our shared humanity.
Clearly, there are some acts so horrific and some perspectives so dehumanizing that listening and reason are not possible. It is also clear that “othering” has different impacts on communities and persons with less power in our society. But I remain hopeful that we can find ways to talk to, live with, and care for those who are different from ourselves. Those are, I believe, the values of America and the things that make for healthy families, communities, and a healthy world.