Saturday, January 8, 2011

Who Are You?

Last week I read an absolutely fascinating book. It was I Sold My Soul On eBay by Hemant Mehta. He's an atheist who decided that he wanted to learn more about other faiths and "sold his soul" to the highest bidder. A Christian won the bid and sent him to visit various Christian churches over a year. Over the course of the year, he visited various churches and offered his thoughts on them. This book is a compilation of some of his church experiences and his thoughts on where the church is succeeding and where it could improve. At a time when I've been in a bit of a reading slump anyway, I absolutely tore through this book. I would highly recommend it.

After finishing it, I started thinking about what appealed to me so much about this book. And in talking to a friend about an unrelated matter yesterday, I think I figured it out.

A comment that I've heard and even uttered when talking about various difficult or controversial issues is, "My friend knows how I feel about this." Whatever "this" might be, most of us are pretty good about making sure that people know where we stand, particularly if we hold the majority opinion or believe that we have the moral upper-hand. I don't think that it's generally said with malice or pride or anything like that, but we are sure to make our stance known.

But what about that friend who knows how we feel? Do we know how they feel? Do we take the time to understand their point of view? Are we exhibiting any desire to put ourselves into their position to better know them? Or are we so entrenched in our views that we're unwilling to even give them the courtesy of our time? Are we listening to them or just forming our responses?

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our rightness that we ignore all other opinions, particularly if they don't represent the views of most of the people with whom we interact. Most of my circle of influence is Christian. So when would I have had much opportunity to really listen to what an atheist has to say about how my faith appears to him? If most of the time I'm just trying to figure out how to prove that he's wrong, I'm not really listening to what he has to say. This book didn't give me a chance to respond, so I was "stuck" listening to him. And he had some really good things to say! I don't agree with everything he said and I haven't abandoned my faith, but by taking the opportunity to read his book, I was able to see myself, some of my actions, my words and my attitudes through the eyes of someone who is different than I am.

This was, of course, a non-interactive event. But how many people do I know in real life where I could apply this empathy? I tend to be a person of pretty strong opinions, so I can have a tendency to monopolize "discussions" and at that point, I'm not listening to the other person. And when I don't listen, I'm not being respectful of them. And if I'm not being respectful, am I really being a friend at all? If my friend knows how I feel, but I haven't taken any opportunity to know how they feel, can I really call them my friend?

Maybe we can all find a friend who "knows how we feel" and take a minute in the next few weeks to ask them how they feel. What is it, exactly, that they believe? Why do they believe differently? What brought them to the conclusions that they've reached? And if we're really brave, how do my actions or words make them feel? I don't think we need to do this to look to change anyone's minds, but perhaps we can find more of our similarities than our differences. Perhaps we can break down some of our misconceptions. And perhaps we can become better friends.

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