About five years ago I was on a subway late at night on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It was packed with people having just ice-skated at Rockefeller Plaza or eaten at an upscale restaurant. I was standing, holding onto the grabrail, when suddenly a loud CRACK! broke through the car. Everyone around made rare-for-subway eye contact, trying to figure out where the sound came from.
Soon our collective view landed on the floor where a person, curled up with a black hoodie covering his head, which was tucked so low his face couldn’t be seen, was lying in the fetal position. He had been sitting on the handicapped seat (which automatically flips up when no one is sitting on it, making the noise) and seemed to have just toppled off, remaining in the same position on the floor in which he’d been on the seat.
I looked around at the spectators; they were all alarmed. They were uncomfortable and uncertain. But they did not move. I did not move. A human being had fallen and was lying motionless on the floor of a subway car, but we all stood there with our nice shoes and our full bellies, doing our best to not acknowledge what was in front of us.
As I drove home that night I couldn’t get the scene out of my mind. How had I let myself come to this place, where “they do things differently”, and forget my basic humanity?
Why did I let a bunch of strangers’ inaction keep me from reaching down and lifting him up, or even attempting to talk to him to see if he needed anything? What was I afraid of?
I thought about the fact that God knows this “anonymous” person. He knows every iota of experience that led the man to this moment on the subway floor. He knows the barriers that have gotten in the way of the man being able to pull himself out of a dark place.
Although I couldn’t see the man’s face, God knew every line, every smile, had counted every tear. He knows his name and his heart, just as He knows mine.
The hooded man has a perspective that most of us will likely never come close to having. But the things he knows are hard-earned and valuable. It is not for me to decide that because he is the one on the floor and I am the one standing, that my experience is more valid than his, my point of view more worthy of acknowledgement than his.
I look at my perspective like a penlight pointed at a blank wall in a dark room. It’s a little dot with a small periphery. If my friend hands me her penlight of perspective and I hold it in my palm next to my penlight, my dot becomes a little bigger and a little more of the dark wall is exposed.
If I keep adding pens until I have a handful, my central perspective is enlarged and my periphery is a little more enlightened.
I begin to understand, or even acknowledge, more of what those around me are experiencing and feeling. I may even see a scary idea lurking in the top corners of my wall, and as I continue to add penlights, see it begin to lighten a little to the point that I am no longer afraid of looking at it.
Perhaps I begin to see that idea clearly, study it, and determine whether or not I want to adopt it into my core beliefs. Whichever I choose, I have succeeded in eliminating a fear and expanding my understanding of those around me.
Outside, the Sun is shining, representing Ultimate Truth. It is not darkened or lightened with our little penlights. It doesn’t worry when a penlight that doesn’t align with its truth is pointed at it.
It doesn’t spit fireballs at the penlight whose bulb is blue or orange. It just burns, secure in its place, there for the enjoyment of anyone who seeks its warmth and light.
I feel so lucky to be in a place (both figuratively and literally) where so many differing perspectives abound. I love seeing the way my Facebook newsfeed has evolved over time, going from being an echo chamber of shared ideas and beliefs, to now a dynamic place where I can bank on seeing vastly different views on a given topic often in one shot of the screen.
On a given day, I can find myself at a playground with other mothers of toddlers, each from different backgrounds and religions (or lack thereof), discussing sleep training methods and solid food introduction, and when we are uninterrupted for longer than three minutes, something a little deeper.
Another day could find Jon and me with several couples from our building or school, all from different faiths, parenthood statuses, and political leanings, engaging on such topics as standup comedy, potential career paths, and yes, politics.
Other times I find myself with a few LDS women sans kids, or a bunch of women at book club, discussing our differing points of view and how we manage to navigate womanhood, parenthood, and testimony, and the inherent difficulties or follies therein.
Even among my Mormon friends, views vary greatly and regularly I am faced with faith-promoting questions that challenge my complacency and deepen my testimony.
We have gatherings with our LDS Law School family and their spouses and/or kids, talking about how we are continually adapting to this place that is no less than a polar opposite of where we all came from.
Often my time is spent with a few 24 year-old, East Coast raised, Harvard Law students who obsess over my kids and futilely try to hide their genius.
This cornucopia of dazzling souls who fill our lives has given me more cause for gratitude than I could ever have imagined prior to coming. I love knowing them, hearing their thoughts on everything under the sun, all while lamenting the not-so-distant day where we will all have to go our separate ways.
When I read a Facebook Status proclaiming that “people who think [insert moral or political stance] are [insert blanket insult]” I no longer see large groups of faceless humans.
I immediately picture someone I know personally who fits the description and picture them reading the post. Forget being persuaded… they are more likely to feel shamed and rejected, and assume the author ‘just doesn’t know them’ and now, due to the sentiments expressed, will never get the chance to.
I can see another friend, hearing a comment in church that isn’t doctrinally sound but claims to be, and feeling just a little more edged out of the place that formerly gave her so much connection and peace.
I can feel the wounds in a friend’s heart as she tries to describe the enormous weight on her shoulders of deciding whether to stay or go from an unfaithful spouse, while voices all around her are saying that “people who…” go one way or the other are weak, selfish, or rash.
Topic after issue after controversy after HillaRump quote, I see and hear ‘stances’ flying about. Often well-meaning people thinking they are making a stand, when really they are either preaching to the choir or alienating those who potentially would have listened.
As I’ve gotten older, these issues have become human beings to me. They are complex, non-partisan, complete and stunning lives that appear in my mind’s eye, and on whose behalf I feel great sadness when I see them being attacked from one side or another.
Let’s try an experiment. Try to answer this question: What do you believe?
Or as Gene Siskel once temporarily stumped Oprah by asking, “What do you know for sure?”
In answering that question, pick one of the things you know for sure. Now, think about how you came to the knowledge of said thing.
What first happened in your life that began the thought?
Who did you meet who opened your eyes to this thing?
How many mistakes did you make along the way of discovering?
How many times did you argue against the very side you are now on, swearing up and down that you would “never” think like “them”? “Them” being your parents, your teacher, your neighbor, your religious leader, your coach?
How many times did you think you had this thing all figured out, only to find out that there was so much more you had yet to consider?
My guess is that it has been a process. It has taken thousands of moments of realization, big and small, some unconscious and others crystal clear, hundreds of mistakes along the way, and probably a football team’s worth of people to help you find this thing- something you “know for sure”.
Hold that thought. Previously I mentioned a few ladies from Harvard Law with whom I spend a lot of time. A couple of weeks ago, one of them was visiting home and sent me a shot of her computer screen where she had, in all seriousness, Googled, “How to boil water”.
Without exception, all of my friends (female in particular, just deal with it) from the West where I grew up, are thinking this is bananas. They likely cannot recall a time when they didn’t know how to boil water.
Unless you’re a conspiracy theorist (power to you!), I think it’s universally agreed that if someone makes it into a top 2 law school, they have a modicum of mental capability. According to standardized tests, they are in the top 1% of intellect.
So, how to explain the lack of knowledge of a seemingly basic piece of knowledge?
Guess what– it isn’t basic to everyone. It’s only basic to you and the people you know! Lest you think this one person an outlier, she’s not. One of the other students did not know how to peel a potato, and another didn’t know how to turn down the fire on a gas stove.
But do you know what they do know? They know how to work their way into top universities without any prior family connection. Something that until 2014, I didn’t personally know a single person who had done so.
They know how to think critically about their political beliefs, listen to ideas contrary to their own, consider them, then infuse them into their decision-making criteria.
They know how to learn, admit idiot moves, and the Jewish ones manage to completely accept me and listen to my point of view even when I base my life upon a Savior whom they know little-to-nothing about.
The building blocks of their lives have built different masterpieces than mine, but they are every bit as beautiful.
Why is it that with everything it takes to reach the point of knowing something, we still assume everyone else has, at miraculously the exact same moment, come to know that exact same thing?
These days, when I see a major gap between what I am CONVINCED is true and what another is as passionately fighting for, I say to myself, “Self, if what I believe is true, then this well-meaning person will eventually come to the same truth. Their path hasn’t been the same as mine.”
Now to address my friends who hail from the Eastern US. Get this: I have personally spoken to more than five individuals in the United States, this year, ages ranging from 20-35, who have never heard the name ‘Hamilton’ uttered in reference to a Broadway Musical.
I also know more than two dozen people (I counted!) who do not personally know a Jewish person, a homosexual, or a person of Indian descent.
I also know people who are unabashedly planning to vote for Donald Trump* (not necessarily the same group aforementioned). These are people with great family and community relationships, some are owners of small or large businesses, others are educators, legislators, and people who have spent their lives educating themselves in a myriad of ways.
*New addition: They aren’t the racist ones.
They are also people who would welcome you with open arms if you showed up on their doorstep. They would come to your rescue if they saw you, a stranger, in need. They would listen to your pain with an open heart and serve you at their dinner table.
They would not think twice about unloading your moving truck, shoveling your snowy driveway, or giving up their precious Sunday nap to visit your grandmother in a nursing home. Their hearts are in the right place, and they are trying every day to make the world a better place.
These two hemispheres of my world are both so beloved. Little by little I am allowing myself to be open to the idea that perhaps…everyone is right? …at least about their own perspective.
So if I’m being honest and unafraid, I’ll admit: I am frustrated with my people’s (on all sides) unwillingness to even try to understand another’s point of view. I’m disappointed that discomfort, newness, or religious cultural practices are keeping us from simply saying, “Hmm. Interesting perspective. I’ve never thought about it that way. Let me think about that a little more,” and leaving it at that.
And then, actually thinking about it a little more.
Whose core beliefs and values contradict that concept? What belief system endorses only speaking and not listening? Or being afraid of dissenting views? Where is our confidence?
Where is our humanity? Where is our awareness of the obvious fact that we all come from differing experiences and therefore perspectives?
If I have paid the price to know some part of Ultimate Truth, I need not react in anger, defensiveness, or “you’re an idiot-ness” when someone says something that contradicts my view of the world.
I can take a minute, or a day or week, to consider what they have said and maybe even take the time to engage with them to find out what experiences, people, and thoughts they passed through to reach the point at which they are today.
Doing so cannot hurt my own truth. Regardless of whether or not what they say aligns with my moral code, by hearing them, considering them, and having compassion, it will only increase my empathy, which increases love– which is the Ultimate Truth.