If You Can’t Know What You Don’t Know: Why Perspective Matters in Love

If You Can’t Know What You Don’t Know: Why Perspective Matters in Love

I didn’t know I was doing it. I didn’t know my world was any different from anyone else. I did know it seemed like a had a harder time with some things than other people. And I thought that meant I was bad.

It started small. I never liked talking to people in public. I always said the wrong  thing. DID the wrong thing. People’s responses confused me. So I kept to myself. I remember that look teachers would get on their face. The angry look from the front of the class with everyone looking at me. They knew something I did not know. The teacher said something I was supposed to respond to, but I don’t know what it was. 

“I don’t know” was never sufficient. “Can you say that again?” Was a guaranteed way to get in trouble. It just meant I wasn’t listening. But I was listening. Or trying to. There was something else going on in my head. I was looking at the way the teacher’s face moved. The way she felt. She was tired. She was frustrated. She was concentrating.

Oh no. Now she was looking at me. I didn’t hear the words. I saw so much, but I didn’t hear. Or I heard something. Noises that were supposed to turn into words but never did.

And then that promise to myself. I’ll do better next time. I’ll try harder. I figure out how the other kids are hearing what she said. But I always ended up watching mouths instead. Or eyes. Or the bird out the window. Or the ideas flying through my head.

Mrs. Green was the most terrifying. Everyone LOVED Mrs. Green. She was so fun and so exciting. We dissected sharks and went on field trips and counted money and so many many grown up responsible things. But she yelled. And she expected a lot, and she knew my father. It was the first time I realized my Dad being who he was changed how people saw who I was. And my father was wonderful. But I never seemed to improve to match how good he was. It never helps me change the noise into words.

“YOU KNOW WHAT YOU DID!” I didn’t. I still don’t. I have guesses. That’s all I have. And that look on her face. Incensed. That’s the look. Total offense that of all people I didn’t hear them.

And that’s what life became. Guesses. Constant never ending guesses. But something happens when you guess all day, every day. Guesses become educated predictions. And predictions start to be right more often, all the time. You start to see patterns everywhere, and then you start to see the patterns you draw as truth–forgetting they’re a stand-in for the real thing.

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“Birthday.”

It’s what I have to go on. I look at my friend’s face. I have to think quickly. Who’s birthday is it? How long was she speaking before she stopped? She looks curious. Oh! It’s a question. Who’s birthday could she be talking about. Oh! Mine! She looks happy. Ok, she’s probably asking what I’ll do for my birthday. That fits.

” Oh, I just usually enjoy a quiet day. Good cake. Time to read. You know, that sort of thing.”

My friend looks pleased. Good. I was right. I watch her mouth closely and think. Listen listen. You can’t miss more.

“Oh! That sounds great!…” I hear noises. She looks excited. I’m so happy to see I got it right. I like my friend so much. Oh no. I’m doing it. I know what she feels. I’m so happy I’m talking to her. I have no idea what she’s saying.

“…my birthday.”

No problem. She just told me what she likes to do for her birthday. The pattern is easy. This is fine.

“That sounds really fun! What a great idea!”

My feelings are genuine. My words are what I guess I would say if I was sure she said what I think she said. I can’t respond in greater detail without too much risk though. I feel terrible. It feels like a lie. But telling her I couldn’t listen feels worse.

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The Drivers Ed teacher is inches from my face. I didn’t notice him until he got close.

“You have to respect me enough to listen in class! If you spend your whole time in here drawing, you’re out of here!”

My face turns red. I look down at the margins full of drawing.

“No, Mr. Krupp. This is a road I drew when you were talking about speeding. See the sign? And this is a steering wheel. 10 and 2. This is how I listen.”

He is unconvinced. I don’t mention that I am constantly reading the text book in between trying to listen. My desperate drawings of his words are interspersed with notes that fit the topic. I’ve been doing this so long, I’m confident it works. I’m angry a low level drivers ed teacher thinks he knows better. No one knows better how I learn than me. I look up at him with contempt. I am simultaneously ashamed of my own attitude.

“Ok, smarty. If you were listening what is the law for…”

I don’t remember what he asked now. I know I got the question right. I almost always did. the crazy puzzles laid out on my notes were life. I was almost always right, so who cared if I listened?
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I love sitting next to Jessican in Psych Theory. She hardly talks. She mostly smiles. It’s like she feels at the world instead of talking. I could not love her way of being in the world more. It’s not exhausting. It’s easier to try to listen. The professor is so animated and loud and he tells constant stories. I remember so much more when they tell stories. But Jessica also takes the worlds most amazing notes and she’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. She always shares. I borrow notes from several people every class. I diligently piece them together. I look for disagreement. Things one person caught that the others didn’t. But Jessica’s are always the best.

Have I ever told you how much I love the Jessica’s of the world? Jessicas are life.

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Diana looks at me in confusion. “Wait, you get all A’s? So what is the problem girl? Why are you so worried about starting college? It sounds like you’ll be just fine!….” she says more reassuring things. I don’t know what they are. I can’t tell my dorm RD cares. I can also tell she’s annoyed.

I put my head in my hands. I’m angry. I’m exhausted. I’m sad. Diana had finally gotten to the point of frustration with me, like everyone did. She told me to make lists. I make dozens. They don’t help. She told me to get organized. What does that even mean at this point? She told me to ask for help. What do you think that I’m doing?

“I’m not worried I will do badly. I’ll do ok. I always do. I just don’t think it’s supposed to be this hard. I don’t think it’s supposed to hurt like this.”

Diana says more things. I see her face. She feels bad for me. That’s all I know. That’s all I hear in the student common room we are sitting in. I hear ping pong balls. Yelling. I see people pass by with food. All I know about Diana is that she is trying to find a way to leave. And that this is the last time I try to tell someone about the world inside my head.
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I remember the first time I talked to Abigail. I don’t remember what she said. She was always so nervous. She wanted to do the right thing. Kindness and concern and anxiety dripped from her every moment of every day. When I talked, trying to figure out what I was supposed to say in return, she didn’t get mad. She didn’t look at me like I was from another planet. She was more worried that what she was saying was ok too.

Some of my favorite conversations were about nonsensical phrases we made up. Things I said that made no sense, that made her laugh instead of mad. Silly things she made up to say back. I usually felt like I vibed with Abigail more than I talked to her. She was my first sensitive friend. And she came with other sensitive friends. My first people who’s feelings were as important or more important than what they said. I didn’t have to hear them. I just had to know what the feeling was. I just had to be nice back.

There’s a secret underground world of people who are incredibly nice, and all they want is for someone to be nice in return. To be sensitive to how they feel at the world. They became my life raft. My salvation in a sea of confusion.

And like Jessica, they took really amazing notes. They did not fuss over all the questions I asked, all the holes that needed filling. And in return, I tried to help them with math. I loved math. When you’ve spent your whole life trying to piece together what happened well enough to function, things that are meant to be puzzles are easy. Joy even. Not that my explanations were always helpful, or anything like repayment for having friends, and people who cared in my corner.

Adventures of tang and dwarf fingers, chinchillas and houses full of people who ran and felt and yelled nonsense and liked me even when I said things that made no sense. Or when I responded to feelings instead of words. Or when I sang, humming constantly to give the part of my head that would not ever be calm something to do so that the responsible bits had half a chance.

The Abigails of the world are life.

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“Andi, there’s no knife on the table.”

Frantically I search through the hand drawn maps and notes in my lap. I told my husband I’d be bad at a text adventure game. I told him that when I can’t see the text, it’s a bad scene. So so bad.

I’d asked him to repeat everything about five times. I’d drawn pictures as fast as I could, like my life depended on it. And I found the picture I’d drawn of the kitchen as he read out the description from the game.

“Read it again.”

“There is a bag on the table that smells like pepper.”

I scribble out the drawing on my paper. I’d drawn peppers.

“It looks like someone has been preparing lunch.”

“Read it again.”

He does. I finally hear what isn’t there.

“Oh no! You’re right! I heard table, and peppers, and something about prepare, and my mind just decided there had to be a knife. Like I’m still shocked there isn’t one! I was so sure!”

He looks at me. I blush. I’m bad at letting him see the process. Years of fights where he heard me lie about something that had been said. I never understood. I never intended to lie. Unless lying includes saying what you think someone said based on their emotions and your own emotions and all the chaos and trying to fill in the gaps under stress.

I feel relieved and angry with myself. This is why I can’t tell you what anyone said just before it got heated. Because I don’t know. I don’t ever know. But I’m not stupid. I’m just a professional connect the dots artist. I try to find the dots. But sometimes, I think it’s a cat when it’s really a dog. There just aren’t ever enough dots in the world to prevent mistakes.

“This is the map you drew? This is crazy! This is what came out of your head?”

I look at the crazy assortment of drawings and arrows and stick figures all being wrangled with lines going every which way, trying to recreate the map and the descriptions in the game. It’s hopelessly confusing. And I also know, that I will be able to piece it into something understandable and even impressive later. I just don’t usually let people see this part, the process of how I try to record it and reassemble it later. Is anything I ever show people or tell people about what I’ve done true? It’s always a restitching to make it look better than it was.

It’s making more sense to me why sometimes my husband and I have to have serious discussions over instant messenger and can’t talk in person. I do so much better when it’s on the screen and when I can refer to what was actually said. What I remember is never right. The accuracy of my feelings betray me every time. The words don’t stick if I didn’t see them. I’ve even learned to see in words. Times New Roman. Comic Sans. If I picture the words, sometimes it helps. Really seeing them is always best.

Later on I will try to write the story.  I know I’m making up what I think was said. I don’t really remember. I’m guessing. I only remember how it felt.
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I’ve become a walking Wikipedia page for anything I’ve ever been interested in. Theology. World War II. Cooking. Random anything and everything.

The more I know the more dots I have. The more dots I have the clearer the picture is. The less the missing dots matter at all. But I have to learn that spewing out Wikipedia pages at parties in entirety is a bad scene.

Hitler makes poor party conversation. Why didn’t I know that?

When your assembling a puzzle of what you don’t hear and what you don’t remember, it’s easy to miss what was never there in the first place.

Hitler. People don’t casually talk about Hitler.

I have another dot. Is it a negative dot? I realize the list of things that aren’t in the picture matter as much or more than what is. It is depressing. Really depressing. How can I know what isn’t there when so  much already isn’t? Should I have just known this? I start running experiments in safe places away from my social goals. If you randomly talk about hitler with people on the internet, it does not matter nearly as much if they block you.

The internet is wonderful. And also terrible.

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What’s missing is not my only problem. What I’m not doing is just as bad. Cabinets don’t get closed. All the drawers in my dresser are almost always open. Laundry stays in the machine for days. I never remember anything I was doing before I changed rooms. Everyone else says they do it too.

“Yeah, but it just seems it’s not nearly as much.”

This is apparently not the right answer.

“You’re not special.”

I will agree with you there. And if this is special, special certainly isn’t good.

Room mates had to point out I never remember to flush the toilet or clean the shower when it’s my turn. I lose my cell phone once a season. Coats, pants, socks, keys, student I.D.s. Life is not about remembering things. It’s about how to strategize and replace things as seamlessly as possible when I do. It’s about moving quickly. Because it can’t be about remembering. It can’t be about just doing it. Everything every day is about covering mistakes and recovering before people see.

I learn that making fun of myself helps. People find it charming. Humble. I don’t have time to think about if it means anything good about me. Only that it makes piecing the puzzle together better. It matters less when I fail if people like me, and if I’ve somehow made it my thing.

I start acting like this is the way I want to be. I’m just aloof. I’m eccentric. I don’t have time to listen to everyone. I don’t care. It’s boring. I say weird things because I’m just so smart you couldn’t possibly understand. My insides and my outsides get so far apart I don’t feel like one person anymore. I feel fractured so much of the time, it becomes reality.

It is years before I realize I’ve made making fun of myself and being stupid my thing. Years before I realize I’ve gotten rude.

Because I’m not stupid. And no matter how crazy my circus gets, sometimes it’s the only thing I DO know. I’m not stupid. And I’m not mean. I care so much I want to die that I can’t do a better job at showing it.

And my mind is my enemy and my refuge. It is so much easier to stop forcing it to sort out the outside world. Inside is perfect. Inside I connect kingdoms and fantasies and ideas and theories and nothing is ever missing. And no one gives me that look.
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Cindy looks at me. But there is compassion there.

“Oh Andi, thank you for sharing! That is so vulnerable and so courageous! You need to know that it is always ok to ask for things to be repeated here. And did you hear what your friend just told you?”

I blush. I remember how she looked. I remember knowing she loved me. I know she said nice things about my family in a vague sort of way. But I don’t have the words.

“No, I’m so sorry. I know it was nice”

Everyone laughs. It’s a nice laugh though. I didn’t have to make fun of myself first. It’s just too perfect. I would laugh too.

Marie smiles and grabs my hand. I can see her face. She loves me. She knows I care. She doesn’t even repeat. She doesn’t have to.

We have been talking about what it means to have an entire soul. A soul completely in-line with itself. I remember because I got to see the words on the page. I’m so glad it’s a book and not just a video series. But what does it mean to make my outside match my inside? It means admitting a lot more than I ever do. It means not pretending I know what I don’t or that I hear what I haven’t or that I follow when I can’t.

I write this later, only guessing at what people said. But I remember how it felt. I know what it meant.

The Cindys and Maries of the world are life. Like streams of water flowing from God. Friends who forgive you, who see you, who love you, and who repeat for you and take good notes. Who don’t judge you because your bag is coffee stained and your boot zipper is broken and your name tag is barely legible.

Pure life and abundance.

Maybe Jesus can use the dot connecting. And maybe “I don’t know” is more generous than pretending ever was.

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.