My parents tell me that as a child I had a rather narrow view on life, exacerbated by a stubborn streak that insisted, no matter what the topic, it was either my way or the highway. All other points of view paled in comparison to my own. In fact, finding patience to listen to another point of view tended to stretch me to my limits.
Now, as an adult in an age of increasing polarities in political, religious, economic and social spheres, I find myself tempted to fall back onto old habits, which indeed tend to die hard. Yet, faith compels me to see the inherent value in all people — to engage in relationship building that honors the other as kin — as fellow pilgrims in this world.
One way I am working toward this is by participating in a conversation group made up of neighbors associated with the Highlands Civic Association. Our goal is to meet regularly to practice civil discourse with a focus on current events. Issues include U.S. immigration policy, culture wars, environmental concerns, job creation, diversity and others. One of the challenges in participating in such a group will be the willingness to listen carefully to other group members — those with deeply held convictions that may vastly differ from my own.
Participation in groups such as this requires self-discipline and a deep desire to fully hear not only what others think on a particular topic, but perhaps even more importantly, what lived experiences have helped to shape those convictions. It would seem that the more we learn about each other and the circumstances that have influenced who we have become, the greater likelihood of mutual trust and understanding.
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Another opportunity for listening and learning comes through my participation in Interfaith Initiative Centre County, a group that valuesrelationships above ideologies. One example of this is a wonderful opportunity being extended by families from the Turkish Cultural Center of State College during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. This year Turkish Cultural Center members will be hosting Iftars — the special dinner that ends each day of Ramadan fasting — at four different churches, one each week. The purpose of these events is to build friendships and foster dialogue.
I would suggest that a significant hurdle in our public discourse these days is a disconnect at a very human level. We argue over most anything, and in so doing, are in danger of losing a sense of our shared community and humanity. I wonder how much our communication through social media contributes to dehumanization of our discourse, taking pot shots at each other without any need to engage on a personal level as fellow travelers on the way.
Unless we are willing to commit to learning each other’s stories — our lived experiences — we will continue to devolve into opposing tribes, insistent that our way is the only way. This is not to suggest that all matters are relative and so you go and think your way and I will think mine. What I would put forth for your consideration is that we seek out common ground, rooted in recognition that we are all truly of equal value in this enterprise called life.
Marvin Friesen is pastor of the University Mennonite Church. Contact Interfaith Initiative at InterfaithInitiativeCC@hotmail.com.