Many of our New Year’s resolutions are personal and don’t have a lot to do with saving the world — e.g. lose weight, exercise more, stop drinking, start going to church, be more patient with my kids.
Well, here’s one that is both personal and just might save our country, if not the world. Resolution: I will get out of my comfort zone at least once a month and really listen to someone who is different from me.
Here’s a small, personal example. I saw how polarized our country is becoming. Bill Bishop in The Big Sort wrote that we are tending to live in “balkanized communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible; a growing intolerance for political differences … and politics so polarized that Congress is stymied and elections are no longer just contests over policies, but bitter choices between ways of life. (p. 14)
“Today,” he wrote, “we seek our own kind in like-minded churches, like-minded neighborhoods, and like-minded sources of news and entertainment.” (p. 39) And, he added, “People simply don’t believe what they see or hear if it runs counter to their existing beliefs.” (p. 75)
You all are aware of some of the bigger issues that we see played out in the news almost every evening, but I want to start with a problem of mine that is much more local. Many of you know I belong to a Thai church. Following is an example of what happens to me all the time.
Thais love to play silly games. Last week we were divided into teams of 2-3 people and we had to try to guess what the three people in front were saying. When it came time to end the game, the leader said that one team was way ahead, so what she decided to do was to say that whichever team gets the next round correct would be the winner.
“What!?” I thought, angrily. “That’s not fair. The team that was way ahead deserved to win and not have their victory stolen by an arbitrary decision.”
So I ground my teeth and grumbled that one more time these Thai people don’t do things the right way. They don’t play by the rules. This kind of inner turmoil has emerged often in the 23 years I’ve been with the Thais, so I went into my regular train of thought to process how I was feeling.
The first thing I noticed was that none of the Thais were objecting to the leader’s decision. Instead they, including the team that was ahead, thought it was fun. The second thing I realized was how competitive I tend to be. The first thing I do when I turn on a football game is pick a team I want to win, instead of just enjoying magnificent athletes excel at what they do. Third, I realized it wasn’t that the Thais were doing it the wrong way. It was that they weren’t doing it my way.
This kind of self-awareness isn’t fun to come by, of course. It’s not comfortable. It shrinks the ego. It’s humbling, but after 23 years of repeating the process, I have to say that the ego shrinking and humbling usually puts me back where I should be, where I want to be. Not to mention that by being with the Thais, I receive many cultural gifts my culture isn’t very good at giving.
So when I started becoming aware of the tension growing because of white cops killing black young men, I asked myself what small thing could I do to build bridges instead of walls. What I decided to do was to start getting my hair cut at a black barbershop on Roosevelt Road, called the Millionaire Barber Shop.
When I walked in the first time, I felt self-conscious, as I knew I would, and felt like everyone in the place was looking at me and wondering, “What is this cracker trying to prove?” I had chosen to get out of my comfort zone and was now experiencing the results. Of course, I don’t know what the other guys in the shop were thinking, and it really doesn’t matter because I kept coming back, and we began to trust each other.
One time when I and one of the barbers were alone in the shop, he began telling me, as he cut my hair, what being a student in a mostly white high school was like. He let down his guard and shared with this white boy from Wisconsin what it felt like to be different. And as I listened to his stories, I thought, “Thank you, Lord, for helping me step out into unknown territory” because that black barber was giving me a gift.
Those “out of the box” stories don’t always have happy endings, but it seems to me that if we confine our living to our little homogeneous boxes, an unhappy ending is guaranteed.
So there’s my New Year’s resolution. It assumes that the way to a more profound sense of safety involves building bridges instead of walls on the borders of our lifestyle enclaves.
And that’s why the Diversity Committee, which Mayor Calderone is going to put together this year, might be one of the most important things we do as a community.