If You need Help Softening Your Heart: Refusing to Label an Entire group (including Muslims) as Strangers

If You need Help Softening Your Heart: Refusing to Label an Entire group (including Muslims) as Strangers
Cultural conditioning is such an odd thing.

I used to be afraid of Muslims. I just was. I logically understood that blaming an entire religion and culture for the actions of a few was not right, fair, or reasonable, and that this kind of thinking would condemn us all if we were honest. That memory of watching huge buildings on fire, buildings I did not even know existed, in September at 14 years old was burned into my memory. It’s natural to want to blame a whole people. It just is. When faced with fear we have a choice between two things: realizing that anyone anywhere can do something severely evil, and believing that it’s isolated to one group who we can attack and isolate. And it FEELS much better to choose the latter even if it’s not based in reality, because it means the fear is with one people and not all of them.

But logically knowing all of that couldn’t change my heart or prevent the pull of wanting to blame one set of people anyway. It was only by living next to them, in a desperate decision based in poor mental health and loneliness, that I began to really change. And while I can tell lots of stories of meeting Muslim friends in a new country and learning surprising humanizing things about them, it was always the little things that started to undo the fear for real.

It was seeing my coworker who was always dressed very carefully concealing every inch of hair (not all my female coworkers did), in the restroom without her robes to reveal an afro, ripped jeans and suspenders under all that.

It was having constant passive commercials showing things like a mother dressed in Hijab making all the silly over-dramatic faces TV moms always do right before they feed their kid something from a box or a can.

It was watching women dressed in that mysterious garb jump on trampolines on the beach with their kids. Or ride four wheelers. Or eat at Pizza Hut.

It was seeing the men wearing those white robes and red checks carry babies and crack jokes and argue about IKEA furniture with their wives. Experiencing those same men worrying if I’m being treated well and if I feel at home as a foreign woman–even worrying that people were placing conservatism on me that as as an American woman didn’t adhere to. And then, those men wanting to make sure I didn’t have to adhere to it.

It’s living next to people that does it–that softens a heart enough to see the humanity. The similarity. The universality.

They’re not just like me, but they’re SO like me it makes me uncomfortable. Because I should have KNOWN that. Because I knew it but I didn’t KNOW.

It’s a terrible trope that Christian kids come home with after a short-term missions trip. “I went there to help people, but they helped ME. I went there to teach people but they taught ME.”

Really, you’d think we’d stop needing to be taught the hard way that often the very people who we look down upon as people who need saving and changing are the very people who could most save and change us. The fault is never in the needing exposure. We all need exposure to each other to truly understand and stop trying to separate ourselves from each other. It’s the innate belief that we are somehow better or MORE than other cultures and people’s. It isn’t unique to Americans, but it is 100 percent damning and damaging wherever it lives.

Fear and lack of understanding can only be healed by living next to each other. Studies have been done. There is literally no other way to undo fear of people who are culturally separate from us. But arrogance and superiority–that is something that God can heal even without exposure. And it isn’t that he couldn’t heal the former without it if he wanted to–it’s just that I believe living WITH each other IS the manner by which God heals such things. But it requires stepping out in faith. Faith that we aren’t superior. Faith that we must continue to cross divides and do what makes us uncomfortable to pursue God’s ideals.

It would be easy to assert that somehow because I chose to go and confront my fears that I am somehow superior to everyone who hasn’t or doesn’t. But it would be a bold-faced lie. I needed to believe that they were the same as me, because I had spend much of my childhood feeling like an outsider in a town full of insiders where most people only came from THERE. And I went to confront my fears because I was in the middle of a death spiral of depression where doing something exotic, even if it felt terrifying and life-threatening was at least something new. It was impressive and edgy. It felt like it had meaning I could wave under the noses of everyone who I perceived as having rejected me. But things did not happen the way I planned, and I grew as a person in spite of my terrible reasoning for doing something so outside of my comfort zone–because God can and does use everything including our own arrogance and stupidity. Here are several of the things I learned in spite of myself:

I learned that doing something exotic does not do anything to persuade people who see you as an outsider to see you as anything else. Quite the opposite. In fact, in many ways where I only perceived people saw me as outside, weird, or different, I managed to get them to actually thinking me that way (where people thought about me at all). If you’re going to travel somewhere to live with people you do not understand, it will always change you. Not them, not the people you left behind, but you.

All religious people should experience someone trying to convert them with all the zeal and passion of a person who loves you but also doesn’t want you to go to hell. It’s humbling to hear words you thought were exclusive to the wisdom of your own religion coming out of someone else’s mouth, but worried about YOUR soul. It’s embarrassing to discover tracts from a religion you were taught was foreign and evil, and realize that they could represent your own religion, with just a few words changed here and there. And it is humbling to realize someone wants you in heaven THAT BADLY. To watch them pace through all the same award steps, asking you to read their Book, come to their gathering, talk to them about their faith. Even when you don’t convert, and never would, it changes you forever.

You cannot help but be grateful to a people when they show you hospitality, even though you are a stranger in THEIR country. Time and again, when you are not FROM a place, you realize just how vulnerable you are. People could ignore your pleas for help when you don’t know what to do. They could refuse to translate what you did not understand. Refuse to give grace when you do the thing everyone there knows you shouldn’t. They could leave you out and justify it totally. You begin to see this again and again. And again and again you find that people help anyway. People DELIGHT in helping. Even the ones who would seem to be most motivated to be against you. The image of God is unmistakable in every place, no matter what you believe or what they believe.

When you are faced with the choice of doing something illegal as an immigrant that would help your circumstances greatly…you probably do it. I worked illegally in Saudi Arabia for 3 years. People paid me under the table. I was so desperate for something to DO, for the feeling of productivity and contribution. In my case, I was lucky enough to not really have to worry about my ability to live and support myself because my husband did have permission to work. AND I STILL DID NOT CARE. Work gives people dignity. But in any case, the point is not that everyone would do what I did, but that you simply can’t know what you will do in a situation until you are there. I worked illegally for 3 years and I wasn’t even worried about my life, children, or ability to feed myself. If you don’t know me, let me assure you that I am not a person who casually breaks rules. I was the kid who reported it if a teacher gave me a higher grade than I deserved. I always return wallets and phones. I own up to things even when NO ONE CARES.

I began to realize just how scared people were of ME. The news and general information out there about my own religion, country, and culture is not great. Some of it’s wrong–but not all of it. Perspective is such an amazing and unreal thing. I could be mad at the media for misinformation–but how could I be mad at my neighbor who trusted their own media and literally knew nothing else? And how could I be anything but IN AWE when that neighbor chose to show kindness and openness anyway?

My next-door neighbor originally assumed I hated them. He was always polite, always kind. Then I found out that someone had reported his beloved German Shepherd and he’d had to remove it from his home. He assumed it was us out of some vendetta. Luckily, we go the chance to talk when I offered to let him and his wife park in our driveway (they had two cars, we had none). When he found out I wasn’t a dog-hater and didn’t even know he had a dog, he threw the switch to total hospitality so fast it made my head spin. They came over to share food and show us vacation pictures, when our son was born he and his wife went out of their way to get us gifts “American style,” because Saudis just give money. (AND HOLY MAN DID THEY GIVE US GIFTS. THERE IS NOTHING MORE HUMBLING THAN BEING GIFTED SOMETHING BY A SAUDI OR FED BY A SAUDI. LET ME ASSURE YOU AMERICANS DO NOT KNOW HOW TO GIVE GIFTS OR HOSPITALITY LIKE THAT.)

Also, and this lesson doesn’t matter so much, but nothing prepares you for eating at a restaurant that claims to be your own country’s food. Just someone’s else’s interpretation of what pancakes and eggs are supposed to be like is rather revealing about how radical perception and understanding can be when they are shifted just a few degrees. The only people who should make American breakfast are Americans and that is one prejudice I will stick to until I die.

You can’t eat meal after meal next to people you thought of as strange without discovering that they are shockingly familiar. They discuss weekend plans and complain about over-involved mothers. They go outside for smoke breaks and discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. They make the same jokes your own Dad makes, just with different politics or religions inserted. They gossip and talk about the weather. It’s hard not to be stupefied as thing after thing you thought came from only your own family, background, culture and country spill out of the mouths of people who dress nothing like you and speak with an accent.

Culture is clothing. It is exterior and shallower than we ever tend think. Humanity is deep, and it is not different from place to place. Living among any people, no matter how different they may seem is revealing: when you go looking for the exotic, often what you find is the totally familiar.

We marginalize the minority, not because we have special rights or conditions, but because that is what humans do everywhere always. Because fear is natural and what we all do.

But I believe we are better. I know we are. I know we can rise above what’s natural and easy.

So listen to music that’s not yours. Watch shows that represent someone different than you. Read books with a perspective that bothers you. Let’s get out of the echo chambers. I’m not asking for change in what you think or believe, only in what you are exposed to. If we passively expose ourself to our neighbors, you’d be surprised how much easier it just becomes to BE neighbors.

And I will never be angry with or scared of someone who asks for such things, who wants the marginalization to stop. Because I want it to stop too. And it’s never as scary as people think it will be. And changing your perspective doesn’t mean losing your beliefs. Often, when we understand other people and beliefs–we understand ourselves better, and what we believe is strengthened.

Fear is a greater enemy than any other set of people ever could be. Don’t let it have you.

If You Just Had to Park so Damn Close: Showing Each Other Grace By Believing the Best

If You Just Had to Park so Damn Close: Showing Each Other Grace By Believing the Best

“DO YOU HAVE TO PARK SO DAMN CLOSE?!”

I found the tiny yellow note on my dash under my wipers at a point where I’m not entirely sure which of my parking jobs it was referring to. As with anyone, I think, with any kind of criticism, my gut reaction was to defend myself.

But to whom would I present my defense? Would it even be sufficient to just defend myself for this particular time? As someone who has always struggled to pull off neat parking jobs, it didn’t terribly surprise me that eventually it caught up with me. Having given up on re-parking repeatedly every time I wasn’t perfect, I eventually settled for between the lines and able to open the doors without dinging anyone as sufficient. I desperately wanted to tell them that I had tried. That I THOUGHT I had done a good enough job. That though pregnant I had been able to get out with relative comfort on the close side.

But you can’t argue with a note. Maybe that’s the point? Shame with no risk of argument.

Jonathon asked, “What’s it say?”

I didn’t want to show it to him, but passed it over anyway. “It’s not very nice, and there’s nothing we can do about it anyway.”

I thought to myself that if Mr. Note Writer had met me in person it would be hard to be mad at me. I would be so apologetic. I would move my vehicle right away. I would smile and poke fun at myself. I would use my own awkwardness to charm them out of anger and diffuse the whole thing immediately.

But as it was, they got to think of me as only a selfish close parker. A note like that carries a note of hate and contempt in it. It would be impossible to hold that kind of emotion in a stable way with real me. But with mysterious close parker me, it was easy.

And I imagine, that kind of fits right in with what everyone seems to like doing these days.

I read an article recently that current ratings of television and movies can be actually quite hard to interpret by audience numbers alone. Because it is a current fad to hate watch things. As in, people watch things they despise for the sole joy of complaining about them afterward. I think this is a much softer way of pointing a finger at the general emotional atmosphere of the U.S. in general right now. We are so much more into what we are against than what we are for.

But what if we started believing the best in people?

What if when someone parked badly, we imagined all the great reasons they could have had to do that. What if when someone piles 30 items in the express lane we think of what could lead a nice reasonable person to do so? What if, when we heard an opinion we thought was truly awful, our first reaction was to wonder how a person came to that conclusion? What if we assumed it was for good reasons, even if those reasons led them to a different place than us? And what if…what if I assumed the man who left the note on my windshield had understandable reasons for leaving an angry note?

Maybe his Mom died. Maybe he has to use crutches that made it even harder for him to get into his car than for me and my pregnant belly. Maybe he was joking. And maybe the note wasn’t even that mean and he was genuinely correcting me in a way I needed to be corrected.  All of these things are at least worth considering before I just decide the note leaver was a mean person. (Or even a man. Did you notice that?)

Because if you are like me, you’ve been the person on the other end of that equation. The person who needed grace. I’ll never forget the day, when I had an emotional explosion in public, way too old for it, and way out of line–when someone came and wrapped their arms around me and asked me how I was feeling. That person was even the object of my explosion. She sat with me until I calmed down. She made sure I was ok. And not once did she defend herself against the list of untrue assumptions I had made about the situation. She just saw me. She assumed the best.

And in that moment, receiving grace I did not deserve in any way, my heart changed. It was a grinch getting a bigger heart moment. The kind of thing that changed my life. The kind of thing that gave me capacity to finally dive into my own hurts and work on them, so that I could turn it back around and show grace to others.

If life is a parking lot (and we are ok with intentionally terrible metaphors), we are probably all going to park a little too close at times. Or try to take the same spot at once. Or bump into each other circling to find a spot. But we can safely assume we are all here for similar reasons, seeking basically the same thing. A place to fit in, and hopefully with as few scratches and bumps as possible. And we owe each other that grace. We are all worth that risk.

Otherwise, why are we here at all?

If Your Voice is Small

If Your Voice is Small

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

I’ve seen you, fellow quiet sojourner. I know people ask you why you don’t talk too. I admire you, because you are probably better at just saying nothing rather than letting awkward dribble escape now and then, just to prove you exist, like I do. I wish I only talked when I really wanted to. That I didn’t feel pressed into small-talk, which it turns out isn’t often remembered at all anyway. I feel kinship with you, even while I want to give you space and not insist on doing the same thing to you which most people do: expecting friendship, or entertainment, or patronizing conversation where I’m only insisting we talk because I somehow think it’s my job to get you to do it. I see you. I tend to think you are better than me, because you are more comfortable with your backstage place, less worried about how much you exist in the worlds of others, less inclined to fill in the spaces with conversation you don’t really want to have.

Do you, like me, sometimes keep your mouth closed because you know the only thing that would come out would be disappointment or disdain? Or maybe sometimes because you aren’t interested in the conversation going on, and you just honestly don’t know how to pretend to be excited? Or maybe you accidentally dropped off into your own fantasy about a magical land where cups of coffee are always bottomless and naps are long and thunderstorms always come at 3 o’clock sharp after plenty of sunshine so that rain is always whimsical and dreamy (and never just cold and dark) and animals really do understand what you are saying and people never ever think that being quiet means that you are less capable, or less smart, or less important?

And I’m guessing that you, like me, are always just a little startled when the label “quiet” is applied at all. Because it’s not quiet in your head. Because when you are one-on-one with someone you really care about you can go on for hours. And if you measure only the talking that people do that they really care about, and really deeply mean, the amount is really about the same. And I bet you, like me, have a hard time regretting not being into fluff conversations. And hopefully you, unlike me, don’t have a lot of regrettable fluffy conversations on your conscience, because you, unlike me, are a more dignified version of “quiet.”

Maybe you, like me, trust words more when you’ve had time to think about them and when you can set them down on paper. Or screen. Not a place where they just float out in the air to be forgotten, or misconstrued later, but in a place of permanence where they can be counted, measured, and heard again and again. Because words can be such slippery dangerous things when you don’t pin them down properly. (It’s so much easier to be held responsible for something I can prove I said, rather than for something I don’t quite remember saying or that I’m sure I said in another way).

And do you, like me, struggle not to roll your eyes when yet ANOTHER charismatic go-getter with a loud voice and a tendency toward pandering and a total lack of appreciation for thoughtful types has been elected as your boss, or pastor, or mayor, or president of the adorable cats appreciation club? (Just kidding, obviously cat lovers would never do such a thing.) Do you sigh with relief on the rare occasion when someone who values substance and reflection and honesty, and occasionally quiet, actually manages to be the leader of something? Do you then roll your eyes again as all the charismatic go-getters scramble to be that person’s friend now that he has some influence?

I think God made sure Moses was in the bible just for us. People talk about his speech impediment, but they act like he must have been yet another charismatic go-getter who just happened to have a stutter and would be just as loud and charismatic and go-getting as the popular leaders they are used to. They forget about his reluctance to lead at all, or his quiet response over and over again to merely go and pray when the Israelites were ready to kill him. Or the fact that when more charismaticky go-getters thought they deserved leadership just as much as he did that they were struck-down with leprosy or sucked straight into a hole in the ground.  (Look it up. It’s not smart to spurn God’s quieter ones). God has raised us, defended us, loved us, valued us, and occasionally smote the loud ones on our behalf. And a quiet man got to deliver the law, organize God’s nation, and see the Messiah when he first showed his true form.

 

Know that when I see you, I do not think of you as quiet at all. You speak volumes beloved friends. Not all words are spoken. Not all meaning needs words at all. And sometimes, silence can be the loudest response of all.

 

*Note: I do not actually advocate for the smiting of loud people…mostly.

 

If You’ve Never Been an Immigrant (When you need a Human Life Preserver)

If You’ve Never Been an Immigrant (When you need a Human Life Preserver)

Immigrants are some of the bravest people I can think of in this world. And if you have never been one, there is just almost no way to explain how incredibly terrifying and difficult it is to step into a new place where you not only don’t know the rules, but you don’t even know that there are rules you don’t know. I have been an immigrant in another country, and that was tough for sure. But I was somewhat prepared for it as an adult. It doesn’t hold a candle in difficulty to the first time I ever immigrated within my own country.

The first time I stepped foot into the cafeteria at Doudna Elementary, I had no idea where I was supposed to sit. No one had told me where to sit, or how seats were assigned in the cafeteria. At every school I’d ever been in, seating was assigned. At the previous elementary school I attended, it was not only assigned, but done by class in alphabetical order. For four years I had always sat next to the kids whose names were nearest mine in the alphabet. Four years is practically an eternity for a 9 year old.

So with great anxiety, I looked for the kids who my cubby was next to in my new 4th grade class: Daniel H. and Beau H. And I was in luck! They were sitting together! They must do alphabetical too. Not wanting to stand there looking stupid any longer I hurried over to sit with them.

They looked at me like I was some kind of cockroach. Something was definitely wrong. My calculations were definitely off. But not knowing what else to do I ate my lunch as fast as I could and left. I walked out onto the playground where all my new classmates were playing. None of the games looked familiar. No one invited me. I really had no idea where to start and I had already tripped up pretty badly in guessing, so I just sat alone.

Later on I would find notes that my 4th grade teacher made about me and wrote to my mother. “Does not play with the other children. Does not get along with classmates. Spends too much time alone.” Not once had my teacher EVER asked me what was going on or why I wasn’t playing with my peers. What I DO remember was being told soundly that trying to talk to my teachers at recess was inappropriate and I needed to stop. (I had tried to start there because I was generally comfortable in the world of adults. Or at least had been before that.)

A couple days in, I realized something that seemed totally overwhelming about the cafeteria debacle. Kids sat wherever they wanted to. That had just not been the culture of the blue collar school I had come from where such enormous choice might be dangerous. It had not even occurred to me ONCE that the reason the cafeteria was indecipherable was because there were no rules at all to where one sat.

I finally settled on sitting at a table which was mostly occupied by girls from my class. They didn’t seem too thrilled about my presence either, but it was at least getting less of a shocked reaction than the boys I tried. I had no idea that I was sitting at the “popular” table. I just quietly sat at one end, and tried to put as much of my body as I could into the hole that the tables were folded back into when the cafeteria once again became a gym. I listened to what people said, and mostly didn’t talk.

Once I made the mistake of engaging in a game from my old school and tried to “match” boys and girls from my class as couples–but mostly based on putting people with the same color of hair together, the same height, same nose shape, and so on. Kids at my old school weren’t really seriously pairing off yet, so the game was pretty innocuous. But at my new school, couples were already serious business and one of my first couplings was one of the cool girls with a less than cool boy. She immediately told me she would put me with the very large kid in class and started to tell other people about it. I was horrified. I wasn’t trying to mean, but she clearly was.

I was trying to play by the rules I knew. And it did not work.

One day I showed up to sit in my spot at lunch, and the queen bee of the table was already sitting in it.

“Look Andi!” she called out mockingly “I’m sitting in your spot! Are you going to cry? Are you going to try and make me move?”It felt like she saw me drowning and decided that it was high time she took my life jacket, and maybe gave me a good push under as well. I stared at her for a moment. People weren’t perfect at my last school. I knew that when someone was getting made fun of it always got worse when they fought back. So I just picked another spot and I said nothing. I intentionally never sat in my favored spot again.

That was the beginning of a lot of days where I said absolutely nothing. When kids stomped on my feet, I got Mom to buy me steel toed shoes and never explained why. When someone punched me at school and the teacher took his side, I swallowed it. I didn’t want my parents trying to fix it or defend me. When a teacher decided she HATED me because of my Dad’s politics, I just went about my day and tried to dodge her accusations and back biting as much as I could.

Do you know what eventually happened? You should.

I started cracking. The kid who had once kept her head down and really really tried to make the best of things and put a positive spin on everything died. Sometime in Middle School I started arguing. I threw things back at the bullies. I even hit a few kids (careful not to get caught mind you.) I got in food fights. I snarled when people even sounded like they might be thinking of being mean. By the time I graduated with those kids I was known as abrasive and opinionated and definitely oversensitive.

I know this can come off as a long oh poor me kids were mean to me once blog. I hate that. Please know I hate that. Because what I’m really trying to point out is NOT that those kids were bad and I was good. I’m not trying to make any statements about the relative pain of my own school experience compared to anyone else. I’m saying that because of my different culture and expectations for how things worked, I got off to the wrong foot in my new home–and I really never got back on totally. I made new friends, but I never recovered with those first people and I had a very very hard time trusting people in my community.

I was from Kansas, friends. I moved to another state in the same country. The people in that town were not bad, so much as completely unequipped to deal with someone who did not know what they knew. And it did not have to be much. I spoke the same language. I looked quite a lot like them. But it was still enough difference to make a mess of things before I had hardly even gotten started.

I now work with immigrants and people who don’t speak English well because every time I look in their eyes I feel like I just get a little of where they are in life. They are doing everything they can to fit in and blend just like people want them to. And they work so hard to do just that. But what do you do when you have no idea how to pay your rent or that putting garbage out at regular scheduled intervals is a thing? What if you have no idea most Americans aren’t really into a kiss on the cheek and that pointing with your middle fingers is not a good idea, even if that’s how you pointed back home? The only thing that fixes that is if someone comes along and is 1. Kind enough to tell them 2. Understanding enough to forgive them for any previous mistakes.

And even stupid little mistakes in a brand new community can set you up to fail basically forever.

You know what DID eventually help me find a place to belong, and enough to survive, so that thank the good Lord, food fights and a few kicks to the shins were the worst things I actually did? The people who adopted me. The friends I had until the end of high school who were gracious to me and who filled me in on what I was missing (and forgave me for being a bit grumpy and oversensitive at times.)

Friends save lives people.

Friends save immigrants who don’t know how to do very basic things to function in their communities.

Friends save minorities swimming against a sea of people who want them to be just like themselves.

Friends save silly lost girls in grade-school cafeterias.

Friends save anyone who by no fault of their own is a little off the right path and doesn’t know how to get back to a safe place.

Always ask yourself if someone did something rude because they ARE rude, or if there is some piece of culture or personal history you might be missing. And you know what? You can always always ask. Often, almost always, people have reasons for what they do.

I think standing in the gap for someone is one of the most enriching and empowering things I have ever ever been blessed to be able to do. Because in some small way, I feel like I am getting to reach a hand of comfort back to my child self, who didn’t even know where to sit in the freaking cafeteria. And all it really takes is friendship freely offered with room to understand someone with a different story than my own.

So I’m pleading with you. Wherever possible, figure out where people are drowning in culture or even just in life and throw them a life vest. Heck, go and be a damn human life preserver. Because one day, if you are very lucky, you will need a human life preserver and someone will be that for YOU.

And you will never ever forget that person.