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 are swimming in deep waters (Holding sadness and joy at the same time)

If you are swimming in deep waters (Holding sadness and joy at the same time)

In the middle of a midnight drive, in a terrible rainstorm, I saw it. A giant boat rising up on the side of the interstate out of the chaos.

A bubble of laughter burst from my throat unexpectedly. “That’s a boat! I mean seriously there’s a boat on the road!”

I thrilled a little in imagining it to be a modern day Noah’s Ark sort of situation. I giggled like a kid at the silliness of finding a boat all by itself on the interstate, ready to face the oncoming deluge should it devolve into a worldwide flood.

It had been a really terrible night. And a wonderful night.

My family and I had been visiting with old friends and were on our way back from Long Island to PA where I have family, when I accidentally directed us through Time Square. Yes. Accidentally. Who does that? I still think my GPS owes me an explanation for THAT set of directions. But we got to show that place of bustling craziness to our oldest son who had lived there with us as a baby.

“Mom, what is this place? Why are we here?”

“It’s New York City. And I don’t know.”

“I LOVE it Mom! Look at all the people Mom! This is amazing!”

We skipped through the traffic and did our best not to hit jaywalkers. We both laughed heartily when a car pulled around us in our left-turn lane to turn left from the right hand lane because we were not FAST enough. And I got a phone call, somewhere in the middle of the mad dash through Manhattan, that somewhere a baby had died.

Softly in his sleep. His mother, my community member, fellow teacher and fellow Mom, sat somewhere in devastation.

And I had to look back to my family. To give us directions so that we could find Lincoln tunnel before we got lost in the labyrinth of NYC forever. To talk to my son about where we were until he fell back asleep. To squeeze my younger son’s leg and make sure he was still breathing, because I needed to hear that. Over and over again I checked.

And my husband and I had this magnificent conversation about life, and love, and sadness. I had just received permission to use the name of another Son who had died almost exactly one year before. To use his name for the unborn child I now carry, a child who is to be my third son. He will bear the name of my own family’s lost son so that we can remember, and take joy in a life well-lived, and bring forth new life in the midst of sadness.

And it was one of those conversations that marks a place in time. As if we were getting to step outside of time for just a little bit to review where we had been. To muse on where we would go and ponder how we would walk through great tragedy should it ever come to us. We laughed, and we cried (Ok, I mostly cried and my husband sat in respectable somber silence). And we were at once joyful and hopeful and devastated. And I did my best to hold all of it without dropping any of those feelings, wrapping it like gossamer and thorns around my own heart. I held the meaning of the grief and the memories and the giggling all at once…

as we drove into one of the worst thunder storms I have ever been in.

And we spent 3 hours blundering through rain so thick we couldn’t see the lines on the road, only forging ahead because every other car had their emergency flashers on too, little blinking lighthouses to follow into the night that, themselves, could take a tumble off the road. My knuckles gripped my seat in anxiety as I continued to cry and laugh. I thought about our beautiful night, the real fear of driving on a road we could not see, and that I was experiencing all this at the same time another mother somewhere was having the worst night of her life, and two more I know were remembering the not so distant worst night of theirs.

And Jonathon and I, we held all of these things up. We tried to bear the weight with courage. To fully exult in the joyful and mourn for the brokenness and loss.

And that boat rose up from the storm, like a whimsical love letter to us straight from the God I’ve always thought was just a touch sarcastic and wry (in the best way of course). And I honestly don’t know if I was laughing or crying more.

And we drove home to where my brand new baby niece sleeps in her brand new home with my brother and his wife. Where there were more snuggles to be had and new life to be enjoyed.

And I was so very truly sad-happy in terrible and wonderful sincerity.

It was a treasure-all-these-things-up-in-our-hearts-night.

And we held it all together as we crawled into our bed to try and sleep. Full of wonder, free of fear, trusting that God would hold us whatever would come.

We laid there believing he holds those in grief so closely: past and future, all who have ever mourned and all who ever will. Like children believing our parent knows where we are going in the storm and that somehow, simply because of who they are, who HE is, no matter what happens, the car will stay on the road and we will be ok.

And I still believe that we will be.

If You’re Busy Taming Lions (Some Thoughts on Stress and Procrastination)

If You’re Busy Taming Lions (Some Thoughts on Stress and Procrastination)

If you were to open up my Senior High School year book and turn to the section where “best smile” and “class artist” are listed, you would also find my picture. My snarky one eyebrow raised visage can clearly be seen peeking out from behind the book I was actually reading at the time. It is captioned: “Class Overachiever.”*

The next day, I mentally made a list of goals for college:

  1. Get some B’s.
  2. Don’t work so hard on things you think are stupid.
  3. Have more fun.
  4. Stop basing life decisions on what other people think.

Putting in the effort had only gotten me a bunch of good grades based on work that I mostly didn’t care about or like, and the ridiculous slap-in-the-face-epiphany: “you’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t.” I had thought if I worked hard people would like me, or at least respect me.  But trying to please people is like taking a bath with a plugged in toaster: idiotic and terrible for your health.

I’ve been thinking about that stupid stupid picture in that yearbook a lot this week. After a long  time of really not ever trying to take on extra responsibility and only achieving privately whenever I could manage it, I’ve finally decided that high school me had some good qualities and trying to DO stuff and take on responsibility might be something I’d like to try again. I’ve signed up for some writing, a little speaking, creating a little bit of written material for an event, some event planning of my own, and just some extra hospitality for the people I care about. Nothing crazy. And this stuff is spread out over months.

And right now I’ve turned into a sort of lion tamer with my stress.

“Back! Back I say you dirty beasts!”

A friend recently asked me “did you just take on too much?”

“No,” I said. “I know I can do the stuff I volunteered for, and when I will do it. It’s all very manageable. But somehow also terrifying.”

When I get in this state, no amount of organization seems to cure that sickly feeling behind my belly button. No lists or schedules can tame it. And no amount of trying to get a jump on the work and do it early helps either. In fact, usually I just find myself staring at my computer or phone almost unable to push the keys. Or I DO push the keys and what comes out is absolute garbage. And then all the little chores I could do around my house catch my attention and I let whatever I was trying to do disappear to somewhere in the back of my mind where tomorrow Andi can worry about it. Today Andi is going to go take a bath. Or read. Or cane a dozen episodes of the Great British Baking Show (and if you ever need a pick me up and some time to idealize the world beyond all sanity, I highly recommend it. British accents and cake are miraculous).

But I saw this video recently: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QetfnYgjRE&index=95&list=PLwxNMb28XmpckOvZZ_AZjD7WM2p9-6NBv

I am not too busy, which is an excuse I always used in college. I am not unable to complete the work. I have not signed up for too much. I absolutely have time for leisure and things I enjoy right now. But I am absurdly afraid of failure.

And not just failure mind you, because I know that everyone makes mistakes and that many of them can be laughed off and learned from. But I am afraid of creating something so bad that my life will be objectively worse off from trying to do a thing than if I had never attempted it at all. I’m afraid I will be summarily judged as too much or too little and discarded with nothing but a stupid picture and label condemning my effort.

Deep breath.

But here’s the good news: this is the first time I’ve ever ever admitted that. I do not have too much to do: I’m afraid to do it. Admitting you have a problem is the first step right? So here’s my list, for now:

  1. I am no longer trying to please people, nor do I expect to.
  2. Risk is part of a full life.
  3. Being an idiot is part of the human condition and I need to practice at least a little crashing and burning so that I can get better at it.
  4. I can  trust that I have everything I need to accomplish what I signed up for, even if it means knowing who to go to for help.
  5. I was not created to sit on my butt, even if it IS safer.

As far as I can figure, to get good at something you have to tolerate being bad at it for awhile. And I think doing things on a reasonable time frame and without worry about risk or what other people think is something I just have to do and be bad at for now. And luckily, adults don’t tend to make yearbooks or vote on “most” or “best” anything.

So instead of cleaning up elephant poop because it’s safer, this week I will head into the lion cages with my whip and chair ready to make those lions behave. Wish me luck, and try to figure out what part of that metaphor actually works and which part is just silly. (Answer: all of it.  All of it is silly).

*I begged to hold the book upside down as a sort of protest, poke at myself, and ironic comment all at the same time. I was refused.