Here’s a common scenario: you’re driving along the highway, minding your own business. A car pulls right up on your bumper, honks, and swerves around you. The driver gives you the finger as he flies past you. Your first thought: “What’s his problem?” Your next thought: “What a jerk!”
Let’s all just admit that we make quick judgments based on very little information. The above situation is common to anyone who’s driven in the city, and it’s relatively harmless. But what we’re doing when we call that driver a jerk is a much larger problem, because we’re not just handing out snap judgments on the highway. We’re doing it every day across all spectrums of life.
It’s the human condition to take the quickest and least intrusive route toward understanding. Case in point: Google. If I needed to learn about something for a research project when I was a kid, my teacher sent me to the library to thumb through a card catalogue till I found the book I wanted. Then I read the book to learn the information I needed. Yes, I know. I’m old.
But now, all I have to do is type (or even just speak) a few words into my phone, and a litany of information pops onto my screen. Why in the world would I ever use a library again? The quickest way to get information is the best way.
Or is it?
If I asked you to tell me something that really frustrates you, you’d be able to give me not only the answer, but you could tell me why that thing frustrates you. You have good reasons for the things that bother you most, and those reasons are most likely personal.
Let me give you an example. A young woman gets up quickly and causes a disturbance during a movie. She blocks everyone’s view and makes a lot of noise trying to get out of the theater. You’re annoyed – she shouldn’t have bought a large coke if she couldn’t wait to go to the bathroom till this intense scene is over. What you don’t know is that she was sexually assaulted as a young child, and this movie scene has triggered intense fear. She can’t breathe. Her heart is pounding. She’s not thinking too much about whether she is disturbing others. She has to get out of there.
Or what about that online friend who posts articles several times a week about social injustice? Maybe you’ve labeled him as somebody who just likes to yell loudly. You start to dismiss his thoughts and roll your eyes at his opinions. You don’t understand that he has family members and friends who have suffered horrible injustice, and his way of helping is to speak for them.
You don’t know, because you don’t ask. We all do this. We make snap judgments about people without learning anything. We’d rather avoid the hard work and painful experience of putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, of trying to understand what they think and feel.
If someone is expressing feelings of anger or fear, there’s a reason. Emotions are like signs on the road that point us to what’s in front of us. They help us understand ourselves, but they are also meant to help us understand each other. My friend who is incredibly angry about the results of the election last November is angry for a reason. My family member who rejects the kindness of others has reasons for why she’s withdrawing. Instead of deciding quickly what other people are like, what if I took the time to seek understanding? to ask real questions? to come near to them?
We are meant to share experiences. This is why biographies are written, why songs are sung, why the Holocaust Museum was built. I cannot share your experience unless I come close to you. I can’t even begin to understand till I hear the stories and look into your eyes as you tell them.
One of my favorite stories of a shared experience happens in the Bible, in John 20:24-28. Jesus has just been raised from the dead, and his friends are all talking about it. Thomas doesn’t believe it. He says he’ll have to touch Jesus’ wounds in order to believe that he has risen. The first time they’re together, Jesus asks him to come close. He doesn’t reprimand Thomas for not believing. Instead, he invites Thomas to touch the wounds in his hands and his side. He provides Thomas with a shared experience.
I wonder if that experience was painful for Jesus. Did it hurt to have Thomas’ finger pushed into his wound?
Shared experience is risky, and it’s painful. But it’s the way we’re meant to live if we want to be unified. I need to look you in the eyes and ask you what you think about difficult topics, and then I need to be ready to actually listen (not just wait for my turn to talk). I need to be able to tell you about my wounds, about the things that I really care about. And the goal is not to fix each other. It’s not to change anybody’s mind. It’s not to make someone feel a little better or forget the pain.
The goal is unity.