I am a hypocrite. Although I have stood on my soapbox pointing out injustices and crying out for equity, I am a prejudiced person. I’m racist. I’m classist. I’m sexist. And that’s only the beginning of it. I’ll judge a person based on one Facebook status. I’ll incriminate a whole group of people for their stance on whether they think athletes should stand for the National Anthem or not. I’ll sort you into a group so fast, it’ll make your head spin.
It’s embarrassing, actually. I’ve lived my professional life encouraging students to write narratives – to tell their stories of defining life moments — their parents’ divorce, the death of a sibling, a betrayal of friendship, a proclamation of love. These stories cross all lines of race, class, gender, political affiliation, music preference, and lifestyle choice. Our stories reveal our humanity; they bind us to one another.
In my classroom I have made space for students to laugh with one another, cry with one another, challenge one another, and embrace one another. I, too, have laughed, cried, challenged, and embraced. I have revealed my humanity to an audience of twenty or so students at a time. I have met and loved kids who are rich, poor, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Arabic, Christian, atheist, Jewish, Hindu, male, female, gay, straight, fat, thin, extroverted, introverted, funny, serious,…
It’s not hard to love someone – anyone – once you have heard his or her story. But you’ve got to take the risk of getting close enough to hear their story. That’s the challenge for me, because I’m prejudiced. Before I even hear your voice I have made all kinds of assumptions about you. I have looked at your hair, your clothing, your skin color, and your car. I have seen who you hang out with, what you share on Facebook, and what you retweet on Twitter. I know who you are, I think to myself. You are ‘that kind’ of person. I sort you into a clump and make assumptions about you before I have even asked you one question.
Last week I returned to a job that I left about two and a half years ago. Since I left, my former supervisor, who I loved, had to leave her position for health reasons. I had had a couple interactions with the woman who took her place, but before I had even worked with her one day, I had decided that since she wasn’t my previous supervisor she would be not as amazing, not as on top of things. I pre-judged her. The other day, for the last hour of a two-day-long training, the new supervisor partnered with me for some role-playing activities, and I got my first up-close glance at her personality and heard the first few lines of her story. My prejudices were confirmed but they were also dashed – She isn’t, actually, exactly like my previous supervisor; rather, she has her own unique personality and gifts. (Shocking, I know.) I wasn’t anticipating laughing out loud with my new supervisor as she pretended to be a rather precocious nine-year old to my role of reading instructor, but there we were – giggling like close friends lost in make-believe.
Brené Brown says in Braving the Wilderness, “People are hard to hate close up. Move in.” From a distance, even the length of my arm, I can keep you handily sorted into a category – liberal, conservative, educated, ignorant, friend, or foe. However, if I take the chance to ask you, “what’s your story,” everything can change. My beliefs can be challenged, my assumptions destroyed, my heart opened.
Years ago I picked up my first Jodi Picoult book; I believe it was My Sister’s Keeper. It’s the story of a girl who was conceived by her parents in the hope that she would be a donor match for her critically ill older sibling. Gasp! One glance at that premise and I formed an opinion. How could they? What kind of parents….? However, Picoult, I soon learned, is a master at using narrative to bring her readers in close to see issues in their complexity – issues that most of us find ourselves firmly positioned on – euthanasia, gun violence, infidelity, and the like. She weaves her narratives, often from multiple points of view, to expose these issues as more than dichotomies. She can move me from my Gasp! How could they? to a Wow! I can’t even imagine what kind of love that is! in 400 pages or less!
Real-life stories are no different from fictional narratives – they are full of complexity and factors that don’t appear on the surface. If I judge someone based on her skin color, clothing, language choices, or friends, I am missing out! I am missing her story – all the characters and plot twists that have led her to today. Not only that, I am diminishing her humanity – I am relegating her to a category rather than appreciating her individuality. Most importantly, I am denying the connectedness that she and I share as members of humanity – children of the Creator.
On Sunday (Jan 7, 2018), our pastor, Gabe Kasper, spoke about the necessity for genuine relationships in the church (read or listen to the full-text here). He said that genuine relationships are characterized by vulnerability, empathy, love, and the willing of good for the other person. Often we don’t enter into such relationships because 1) we are afraid of getting close to people, and 2) we don’t want to take the time. However, if we are willing to take the risk to move in just a little closer, to ask others to tell us a little piece of their story, everything — EVERYTHING – can change. Story has the power to transform us – our understandings, our experience of life, and our relationships. Imagine the impact of a couple hundred people who have chosen to be vulnerable, empathetic, loving, and supportive of one another. Intentionally and consistently. What ripple effect might that have?
Are we willing to, knowing better, do better. Are we willing to call out our prejudices and stereotypes? Are we willing to set those aside, move in a little closer, and take the time to hear the stories of people who may not be just like us?
Consider this: Because I am a 51 year old white woman who has been a teacher and a pastor’s wife, you may draw some assumptions about me. You might be pre-disposed to believe certain things – that I’m Christian, heterosexual, pro-life, Republican, and financially secure. You might believe that my family is immune from tragedies such as chronic illness, sexual assault, alcoholism, eating disorders, family conflict, depression, or anxiety. Some of your assumptions may be right; some would certainly be wrong. How will you know which is which? You will have to lean in and listen to my story.
Some of the things you learn about me might be confusing. They might challenge you. You might not agree with me. You might choose to walk beside me anyway, and in that walking, I might learn some things about you that are confusing and that challenge me. I picture us taking lots of long walks together, learning about one another and growing together.
I am picturing that if we are willing to take the chance to move in close and learn the stories of those who we might have previously sorted into categories, our assumptions will be destroyed, and we will never be the same again.
Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.