Somewhere in Milwaukee, a jury is deliberating. I cannot imagine the depths of their struggle in this moment. Every one of them must be aware that they have a role in an historic moment. Sadly, no matter what they decide regarding the criminal counts against former police officer Derek Chauvin, there will be some degree of outrage. In anticipation that anger may become violence, the National Guard has been assembled, law enforcement are preparing, and barricades have been erected. Those twelve folks are deciding one man’s fate while the rest of us wait, alternating between holding our breath and whispering prayers.
Why are we in this tense moment? That is a loaded question if there ever was one. There are a plethora of recent events, decades of division, reams of rhetoric, and centuries of history that have led us to this moment. It would be presumption on my part to think that I could, in one article, address even the most rudimentary outline providing sufficient explanation as to how we arrived at this place.
Yet, while an all encompassing summary is beyond my scope, I do believe I can offer one malady that stands out in our current state. There is an issue that is at the root of our current dysfunction.
We have ceased to understand one another.
No, wait, that is a step to far. Understanding another person is almost impossible. Even if we grow up in the same circumstance, even in the same home, a real understanding may be beyond our abilities. There are none of us who have walked the path of another. Similarity does not equal sameness.
Perhaps two men grew up with substance-abusing fathers. While they have a similarity, that does not mean all things were the same. Joe’s father may have been a violent alcoholic who viciously beat his wife in front of the children, but who always provided well for them in all things financial. Meanwhile, Chris may have never seen violence, but he may know what it is to wake up in the morning and discover that the electricity is off or see his mother weep as the black tow truck removes her minivan for the second time this year. Just down the block, A.J. was raised by a high-functioning addict and he never even knew there had been an issue until medical conditions came to light late in his father’s life. Three homes had similar situations. Yet, they were not the same.
The same can be true regarding any number of factors. Growing up in the same town does not guarantee indistinguishable experiences. Being the same ethnicity does not indicate monolithic existences. One struggled, another did not. One experienced racism, another did not. One feels slighted, another does not. One had positive role models, another did not. Every human has their own story. The trouble happens when we view the story of others in the singular perspective developed by our own narrative.
We cannot understand others by making assumptions based on our own experiences. So, what do we do? How do we overcome the gaps between us? Maybe we cannot ever arrive at full understanding, but can we at least approach empathy? I think so, but it will require a paradigm shift.
We have to try something novel. We have to listen. Actually listen, not wait to talk. We must cease with the incessant point keeping and conversational sparring wherein we wait for our opening to spew the latest talking point from our favorite “news” anchor. More understanding and less overcoming. Your neighbor is not your adversary, unless you make him thus. You may win the debate, but what’s the prize, another decade of division?
So, here is an idea. Listen to someone one. Listen to them. Respond to them. Communicate with them, not the group you think they represent. They are not their political party. They are not their church. They are not their religion. They are not the all encompassing representations of their racial background or ethnic group. They are a person.
Stop expecting others to represent their “group” while demanding you be heard from the perspective of your individual experiences. Stop conversing with the institutions you think they represent and start conversing with them. Like you, they have a story. They have an experience. They have something to say. Are you listening?
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