Seeking likenesses rather than differences

by Kristin on December 10, 2010

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by laffy4k

Yesterday, a friend told me his dad wants him (his son) to renounce him (the father) because of “religious differences.” The dad is very involved in his church, and my friend is best described as an agnostic atheist.

While I was trying to wrap my mind around that whole thought process—what would possess a father to choose that path to make his point?—news of the Senate’s failed vote to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) hit my Twitter stream. I felt something inside me pop and short out, as my brain and heart simultaneously revved too high.

What is going on in this world, that a father would reject a loyal son for different religious beliefs and a nation would reject a loyal citizen for different sexual orientation?

What is so scary about “different?”

Sure, these issues are not the same. One is about religion, one about sexuality; one is between two family members, another is about an entire nation. But I quickly realized the part that angered—no, infuriated—me about both issues was the same: Why are we so afraid of people who are different? And why do we think our aggressive rejection of them will change anything?

I do think this is all about fear: We are afraid of those who are different from us primarily because we don’t truly know those who are different from us. In some cases, we may have an experience with a person or two of different beliefs or identity, and we assume that one example applies to all—we create a stereotype and then project it onto every (fill in the blank: homeless, Christian, atheist, Muslim, gay, African American, Republican) person we meet moving forward.

There are other paths to love besides agreement

The other issue at play here, I think, is our inability to separate love and respect from a foundation of similarity and agreement. In other words, it is easy to love and respect someone who is very much like us, to wrap all of the similarities and love into one neat bundle, and a lot more work to separate the two—to separate our opinions about issues from our feelings about a person.

Think about it like this: If I was only able to love and respect people who are like me, that group would include liberal, Christian, Generation X, middle class, educated, heterosexual moms.

But what if I think about people more in terms of qualities or characteristics I respect, rather than ideas or opinions I respect? My list of people I could love would look more like this:

I admire/love/respect people who:

…are willing to stand up for what they believe
…are able to talk about why they believe what they believe
…are in an active process of discovering who they are and embracing that self
…are working to make the world a better place
…are brave and don’t let fear drive their actions
…don’t use coercion or bullying to try to change people
…are open to hard questions, and the possibility of changing their minds
…appreciate the richness of diversity and seek relationships with those who are different

Do you see what’s happening with that list? That list allows me to open myself to many people who might be very different from me, on paper, but who embody the qualities that are most important to me. In my case, it’s possible for me to open up and embrace atheists, Republicans, homeless people and maybe even a few of those “top two percent” of wealthiest Americans with their newly renewed tax cuts.

Your list might be different from mine, but if you make it, I guarantee it will shift the parameters of your circle of love and respect, and who can be in it.

Suspending judgment (aka: extending “grace”)

Of course, there is so much we don’t know about any given person we pass by. We might see the color of their skin, or we might guess their age or sexual orientation, but we can’t tell whether they are doing anything to make the world a better place, or whether they’re open to hard questions. And that’s OK. That’s just another good reason to suspend judgment, requiring that we get to know someone before we decide how we feel about them. I’m convinced only good can come of that.

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  • http://livinginabeautifulmess.blogspot.com Cheryl Ensom Dack

    FABULOUS post, Kristin.

    My experience last year after I left my husband and filed for divorce was that I was absolutely rejected because of those choices, even though many of those who rejected me didn’t have the first clue about WHY I was leaving! What if my husband had been beating me? He WASN’T, but that’s kind of beside the point.

    I asked myself over and over and OVER (and still do) your EXACT question: why did/do they think aggressive rejection of me will change anything? There I was, a single mom, trying to keep my head above water, trying to find a job for the first time in 10 years, etc. and the response that makes the most sense to a lot of people was to…not speak to me, ignore me, pretend I don’t exist, write me hateful emails, etc. At the EXACT MOMENT that I most needed love, it was yanked away. And not in a nice way.

    I’d love to have your friend’s dad in front of me and be able to ask him to very honestly (if he could) tell me what EXACTLY he hopes will happen by doing this to his son? It’s a bit telling that HE won’t renounce his son; he’s trying to get his SON to renounce HIM! I laughed out loud about that one.

    I’d like to say, “People! Rejection is NEVER the answer!” That never does anything but alienate, isolate and in my case, make me even more desperate for love and support. And to yor friend’s dad…let’s just think about this logically for a moment. If you are concerned about your atheist friend and what you really want is for them to have God in their lives, know that their atheist friends ARE more accepting and loving than you are. It’s not an “if” or a “maybe.” It’s a “for damn sure.” So fine…reject away, but know that you going to get exactly the opposite of what you want.

    Got just a BIT fired up there! ;)

  • http://livinginabeautifulmess.blogspot.com Cheryl Ensom Dack

    I forgot to add:

    I think the ONLY way to lovingly, compassionately handle differences is to genuinely WANT to understand the other person. Not for the purposes of trying to change their mind. Not because you want to find a hole in their theory. Not because you want to “come off as” a loving person. No. It’s got to be genuine. It’s got to be a choice. It won’t be easy. But it’s the only way.

    I don’t know about you, but the desire to be SEEN (like…for real!), understood and loved is pretty much the deepest desire of my heart. I don’t think there’s anything I want more or anything that makes me feel MORE loved when I feel it. This is different than agreeing with me. People confuse these two. I can UNDERSTAND the heart of another person or at least WANT to and be TRYING TO, WITHOUT agreeing with them. Or requiring them to change.

    If we really “got” this, so many other things would, in a heartbeat, fall into place. That, I believe, is the kingdom of God that Jesus was talking about. But you know…I’ve got some crazy ideas! ;)

  • http://divinest-sense.blogspot.com Jen

    This is too level-headed and thoughtful to be a rant, Kristin. :) Of course, we’re drawn to people that are like us, but to step outside, love, and respect differences is a nobler, more fulfilling and Christ-like way. I guess we all have to work at doing this better, but it’s worth it. :)

    And Cheryl! I totally agree… what good comes from rejection? It makes me sad that people can resort to bitter, hateful reactions, especially when it’s supposedly in the name of Christ. It’s so backwards… only love can change people.

    By the way… when I first saw this post, it made me think of this story. Here’s something positive about people celebrating differences today. There is hope. :)

  • http://divinest-sense.blogspot.com Jen

    Whoops! Looks like my link didn’t work! Here’s the story I was referring to:
    http://edition.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/12/09/katie.starwars.geek/?hpt=Mid

  • http://www.bigmama247.com Alise

    What’s amazing to me is that we get this idea in our minds that because we’re different in some way that we’re just plain DIFFERENT. Except, that’s rarely the case. Your list is absolutely right. When we broaden our ideas about what it is to be alike, we find that most of us really ARE the same.

    “They” (whoever your “the other” might be) are just like you. You go to school with them. You work with them. You go to church with them. Your kids play on the same soccer team.

    We’re all the mostly the same. Great post!

  • http://themoderngal.com The Modern Gal

    This is a brilliant post.

    On the father/son anecdote — I don’t understand how renouncing his son will change the father’s relationship with his church/religion. The father believes what he believes — how does having or not having a son change that? Is he worried God will judge him on his parenting abilities? Renouncing his son won’t make God ignore what his son is.

    I wish so very much that others could wait on passing judgment on others (or just not pass judgment ever) until they truly get to KNOW someone. It’s amazing what beauty you can find in anyone in getting to know them. And it’s amazing what you can learn about yourself in getting to know someone who seems different.

  • http://Www.livinginabeautifulmess.blogspot.com Cheryl Ensom Dack

    My guess is it is 98% about what others think about him having a son who is an atheist. I’d put money on it being about the father’s fear of other Christians’ judgment. Incredibly ironic. The only other option that makes sense would be (and I say this in a literal way, not making fun or being rude) that this father has a personality disorder that would cause him to not have normal feelings of love, empathy, compassion, desire for relationship, etc. My understanding of personality disorder is that it’s a spectrum with the tendency/ability to sort of “not be there” fully on one end of the spectrum and multiple personalities on the other end. So that means there are infinite shades/degrees between. But it seems like this is almost like a “skill” learned in childhood a lot of the time, as a coping mechanism for handling abuse or neglect. It only makes sense: your brain would NEED to shut off in a way, to protect itself, take the child someplace else and keep his or her brain from absorbing too much pain. I’m no psychologist so I’m sure I’ve got an incomplete understanding of this! But my point is basically that there might be some emotional wires cut, such that rejection/abandonment by him doesn’t represent the same thing it would if it were perpetrated by you or I. This does not, however, make the rejection less painful.
    One more idea just came to me. What if the father himself was abusive/neglectful and the son is bringing this to the table as part of the reason why he rejects Christianity? I have a friend who was sexually abused by her dad and brother, her mom knew about it and ignored it. Went on for years. The dad was a missionary/pastor during this entire time. So the same mouth that told her God loved her told her it was ok for him to molest her. I personally don’t think it’s possible for people who experienced God/abuse being intertwined to completely disentangle them. My opinion. But anyway, if your friend’s dad is dodging responsibility for his failures as a parent, he would have an added motivation to sever the relationship. His guilt over whatever he did/didn’t do as a parent, mixed with his guilt that he somehow caused his son to reject his faith…that is an incredibly painful cocktail, and one many people would rather run from than drink.

    Just ideas, of course. There’s always an explanation, even if no one ever figures it out. But that is NEVER that “he’s just a bad person.”

  • http://thealchemistblog.wordpress.com Genevieve

    I don’t have to tell you how sick that story makes me. The holidays, sadly, keep these issues of familial respect/rejection in the forefront of my mind, because both The Boy and I fall so far outside the box our parents created for us. Funny how so many people will tell you that holidays are for family when they have no idea what your family can do to your spirit, right? While I choose not to be a member of any organized religion, I do think Jesus Christ as a character is a good, noble, and moving example. How so many Christians can corrupt that example and think a man who hung out with lepers and prostitutes wants them to renounce their family members is so beyond me that I will never understand it.

    So what can I do? Continue to be the change I wish to see, right? I’ll continue to seek out the latest Catholic publications and purchase religious articles for my family and my “in-laws” because it’s what they want for Christmas, despite the fact that they would never go so far to respect my beliefs. I’ll refuse to call someone weak just because they’re religious, but will absolutely call out the behaviors that make them terrible parents and small human beings. I’ll love my accepting and fellow non-religious friends, and when I feel the unfairness of life, will cling to them and to that old saying that friends are the universe’s apology for family. I’ll sign the right petitions. And maybe hardest–I’ll try to understand the fear that these people feel so acutely that they can no longer love and accept others in a healthy way.

    It doesn’t do much of anything to dull the pain and unfairness of the situation. It doesn’t keep me from shorting out and blowing my fuses, like you. I don’t know what to do about that. I really wish I did.

  • http://tracytodd.wordpress.com Tracy Todd

    There was a time in my life when I wished I was different. Now, I always warn people to be careful what they wish for.

    I am different — physically. An accident left me paralyzed from the neck down. I have had to deal with discrimination, judgment, criticism, staring and rejection, it’s tough! I often feel like an alien in this world which is specifically designed for able-bodied people. But, we all need to coexist in the same world so we might as well learn to respect one another by celebrating differences instead of condemning them.

    I’m so sad to hear of a father who would choose to reject his son. I was stripped of the privilege of taking care of my son because society believed that I was incapable of doing a good job. A year after my accident my husband divorced me and I lost custody of my son. It almost killed me. For me, that was a greater tragedy than the day the doctor told me I would never walk again.

    I hope that this father’s eyes will be opened and his heart will be softened for his own sake as well as his son’s.

  • http://Www.livinginabeautifulmess.blogspot.com Cheryl Ensom Dack

    Tracy… Omg. That must be so incredibly painful. I don’t know what to say but wanted to at least reach my “hand” out to you. If I were sitting in front of you I wouldn’t be able to help but hug you. I am so sorry you have a more than disproportionate amount of pain and loss in this life, Tracy. Ugh…my heart hurts.

  • http://www.chambanamoms.com Laura (@chambanalaura)

    Kristin, you are perhaps one of the most open-minded people I know, and you are drawn to people just like you. Unfortunately there aren’t enough of them to go around.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Cheryl, I have to admit, I love it when you get worked up. :) And even though I didn’t do much more than mention it in this post, that question—”why did/do they think aggressive rejection of me will change anything?”—is really central to this whole issue. I don’t have an answer, but I wonder if people reach a point where they don’t want/hope to actually change anything, they just want to take their stand and wash their hands of any guilt they might feel from seeming too “accepting.” When I think about the whole range of reactions I experienced after my divorce, there were only two or three people, of all the people in my life, who expressed sadness/concern about my divorce while also completely loving and supporting me. Clearly it’s a very difficult line to walk—not many are able. You are right on with this, though, as a place to start: “I think the ONLY way to lovingly, compassionately handle differences is to genuinely WANT to understand the other person. Not for the purposes of trying to change their mind.”

    Jen, you nailed this: “It makes me sad that people can resort to bitter, hateful reactions, especially when it’s supposedly in the name of Christ. It’s so backwards… only love can change people.” And sure, there are different ways to show love. As parents, sometimes love involves discipline, which is one of those concepts people often reference when they’re defending their harsh treatment of others. It’s important to remember, though, that there are many styles of discipline, from the most loving kind to the most horrendous. It’s a word/concept that’s veered so far from the ideal. (Thanks for the link, too!)

    Alise, that’s a really interesting point. We tend to latch on to the most obvious difference and then allow it to color our entire understanding of a person, rather than starting with all of the similarities and working from there. When my daughter was in preschool they did a paint mixing project that involved trying to match all of the kids’ widely varying skin tones. They all started with the same three or four basic shades on their palette, and those shades were simply mixed in different proportions to create different tones. I think it was a very enlightened way to help a bunch of four year olds think about the color of people’s skin.

    The Modern Gal, I like what you did here—instead of just asking how cutting off the relationship would change anything about what the *son* believes, you also asked how it changes anything for the father in his relationship with God or his church. Great question, but a hard one to answer. Maybe he feels a need to take a stand for his beliefs, in order to prove something to someone (like a pastor)? Or maybe he just wants to wash his hands of the situation to remove the possibility of future guilt? Clearly I’m speculating, but it’s a good thing for us to ask ourselves when we’re judging/rejecting others.

    Genevieve, you’re absolutely right about the holidays, and the ability of so many people’s families to just crush their spirits. And you put this so well: “How so many Christians can corrupt that example and think a man who hung out with lepers and prostitutes wants them to renounce their family members is so beyond me that I will never understand it.” I will never understand it either—how so many people who make such a big deal about living their lives for Jesus can go about living lives that look and feel NOTHING like Jesus’ example. I really admire your approach to your family, and I wish I had some ideas about how to shift the relationship a bit, so you can get the same level of respect and love. Maybe just give me their phone number—I’ll call them up and tell them what’s what. :)

    Tracy, I hardly know what to say, other than thank you for sharing your story with the rest of us. We have so much to learn, and so far to go. So many of us who live relatively comfortable, happy lives tend to stir up drama and amplify our problems, forgetting that there are so many people living with real pain, discrimination and heartache.