Can you learn something from someone on the opposite side of an issue?
Or, to put it another way: What would happen if people in our country chose not to demonize someone they disagree with, but listen to them? Really listen to them? Can a pacifist learn something from a lifelong member of the military? Can a Protestant learn something from a Catholic? Can a New Yorker learn something from a Kentucky farmer? Can a born-and-raised midwesterner learn something from an undocumented immigrant? Can a gun opponent learn something from a gun owner? Can a white evangelical Trump supporter learn something from a black evangelical never-Trumper? At the same time, flip each question around. Can anybody learn anything anymore from anyone on the other side?
Well, we can’t, unless we first listen. And we won’t listen until we first see the other person as a person – and not as an ideology, or a political persuasion, or a religion, or an ethnicity. It starts by seeing each person as God sees them – as someone made in His image – and full of hurts and hopes, dreams and desires, baggage and background. In other words, a person just like you: someone with a story – a narrative that has formed them, in ways seen and unseen, into the person they are, and are becoming. Even the loudest and most adamant among us arrives at their perspective in large part because of the bumps and bruises and blessings of life. They believe what they believe for a reason; they stand (and sometimes shout) because something has led them to that place. That something is their story. What would happen if, instead of yelling back, or ignoring them, or belittling them, or writing them off as evil or clueless, we instead listened? What would happen if, instead of pigeon-holing them because of what we can see, we instead sought to hear more from them about what we can’t see?
To be sure, listening is not the same as embracing what they believe – but it is the first step toward embracing them. It is the first step toward putting yourself in that person’s shoes. It may not lead you to agree with them, but it will lead you to walk with them. And in the walking is the understanding. On the journey, we come to see them as God sees them – a loved and unique creation, made in His image.
One of the things I do in my current job is lead a group for kids who are in a diversion program. These kids have gotten involved in a minor dust-up with the law, and to keep them out of court, they get six months of diversion. Before I meet them, I get an opportunity to hear from the diversion workers, as they share some of the background and experiences of these kids. Let me tell you, it changes things. It changes me; it changes my perspective. Instead of seeing them as a kid who did something stupid, I get a glimpse into their lives – the challenges they’re up against, the hurt they’ve experienced, the uphill climb they face. So, when one of the kids is distant and difficult – or hides behind a hat or the long, flowing hair that covers his eyes – I try to have some understanding.
I guess what I’m saying, is this: Put aside your preconceived notions. Get past the generational differences that keep you from engaging someone younger (or older). Look beyond the MAGA hat or the rainbow flag. See deeper than skin color or religious persuasion. See first the person, not their perspective or position.
What difference could we make in our country if we started with this simple idea? What would happen if we truly just listened to each other? What difference would it make if we all did this with just one person on the other side of an issue? In my next post, I’ll give you an example of two people who did just that.