When we aren't of "like-mind," does it work to "agree to disagree?" How do we tend our relationships when our beliefs and experiences are fundamentally opposed?
The complete sermon can be read below:
No Unitarian Universalist creation story starts with: In the beginning, people were created the same. They looked the same, thought the same, acted the same, were the same.
No - we celebrate the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth, two of our seven principles.
A more likely Unitarian Universalist creation story might instead go like this: In the beginning were ideas. Lots of them. They were different colours and patterns and sounded rich and soulful and full, many threads somehow weaving a whole both chaotic and beautiful. And then people came, and they found the ideas were good. And they found that talking about those ideas with other people - especially over good fair-trade coffee - was especially good.
The old joke goes:
A Unitarian Universalist dies, and on the way to the after-life encounters a fork in the road. The left path has a sign “To Heaven” and the right has a sign “To a Discussion about Heaven” Without pausing, the UU turns right.
A Unitarian Universalist died, and to his surprise discovered that there was indeed an afterlife. The angel in charge of these things told him, “Because you were an unbeliever and a doubter and a skeptic, you will be sent to Hell for all eternity—which, in your case, consists of a place where no one will disagree with you ever again!”
And yet, we also hear frequently from Unitarians that our communities are places to find other “like-minded” people It’s a phrase that has been used here at UUCD. And we also value diversity and discussion and growth and learning. Which often happens most fruitfully when we encounter people who are not “like-minded” and ideas that are foreign to us, and require us to rethink our assumptions and values.
And so we live, consciously or not, in the midst of tension between our desire for diversity and our desire to find kindred spirits; in both cases, we are looking for our place to belong, to be included, to find radical acceptance. It is from that place that we feel safe to grow; it is also that place of comfort where true growth is sometimes hardest.
More often than we like to admit, I’ve observed this tension playing out through avoidance of our differences; we’re glad they’re there, and that we can welcome people from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, but we don’t talk much about our actual theological differences, or our political opinions (except when we think we all agree), the role of gender in our lives, or our parenting styles.
And when we do wander into more fraught subjects, it can be with a sense of trepidation, with some people speaking more often and more forcefully, and others’ voices fading into silence.
At the core, we are more comfortable with diversity where one person’s opinion need not affect our own, where criticism or marginalization is less likely. You say tomato, I say tomato. You like potatoes mashed, I like them scalloped. Even I pray to God, you pray to Allah, or you don’t pray at all; so long as we aren’t required to follow one another’s practices.
How can we stay in relationship when we stumble upon areas in which we vehemently disagree? Where the other person’s beliefs impact our level of comfort with them? Does it work to avoid the topic? To agree to disagree?
In my work with families, I’ve had many conversations about parenting. Not yet a parent myself, I recognize the limitations of my experience. And yet there have been moments where I found it difficult to withhold advice and concern. One family comes to mind, a single mother with two teenage kids. She wanted to know how to make her children obey her. I talked with her about my own experiences as a teenager, and the need for kids to simultaneously be loved unconditionally, and for them to be invited to learn responsibility and independence rather than obedience.
Her immediate comment was that I must have been raised quite differently than she was. And it’s true. My parents trusted my decision-making, and for good reason. I was an uber-responsible kid. I didn’t have a curfew because my parents trusted me to make responsible choices while out, come home when I said I would, or call if I would be late. This mother grew up with physical and emotional abuse if she stepped outside of her parents’ expectations, reasonable or not. I grew up being told that I could do whatever I set my mind to. She grew up being told her options were limited. I grew up in an environment that fostered self-confidence. She grew up in one that squelched hers. I grew up with constant invitations to share my emotions, and hear others’. She grew up in a family where everyone’s emotions were volatile.
And so when I don’t understand her parenting choices, and think I would do better in her situation, I have to remember that were I in her situation, I wouldn’t have all my experiences; I’d have hers. And I’d be her, not me, making her choices, not mine. Many days, it’s very hard for me to remember that, and even when I might make different, and in my mind more constructive choices, my choices aren’t ever going to be hers.
Despite my best intentions, I have moments of where I sit in judgement of others. And I don’t always take time to imagine myself in their shoes, or to walk a mile — or a lifetime — in them.
The same could be said for stories in the news. For example, recently there have been many stories of women coming forward with allegations of sexual harassment, to varied responses from other women and from men, both in the media and in every-day conversations. For some, these are deeply personal and triggering conversations, reminders of harmful experiences they’ve endured. For others, it may be a more intellectual discussion. And for many others, especially men I’ve spoken with, it can be an uncomfortable climate where the actions and intentions of all men are suspect, and where confusion and self-doubt and even fear can take hold; “do I risk being accused of sexual harassment?” In general, we tend to identify with those whose experiences are most similar to our own. And it can be alarming when people have strong reactions that we don’t understand.
What is missing most from this — and a host of other conversations — is curiosity, imagination, and empathy.
Curiosity to understand why someone else’s reaction is different from my own.
Imagination to step into their shoes.
And empathy to understand the other person’s feelings, however different from my own.
This curiosity, imagination, and empathy requires understanding that our experiences, even of the same events, are unique. The sum total of our experiences shape our next experience, and the one after that. We can’t assume understanding of anyone else’s experiences solely by referencing our own.
The best way to learn about others’ experiences is simply to ask. In times when our opinions about something important vary widely, what if instead of sharing our thoughts, we ask ourselves and one another: “What has happened in our lives that leads us to think of this so differently?”
It takes a great deal of self-awareness to understand how our own experiences shape our beliefs. And it takes even more self-awareness to be able to set aside our own stories and truly listen to someone else’s.
Not listening to find a counterargument.
Not formulating our next response while the other person talks.
Not shaking our head internally (or externally).
Not pretending objectivity, denying our own thoughts have roots in our experiences.
It is this non-listening that leads to feelings of not being heard. The more we aren’t heard, the louder — or more silent — we become, the more entrenched in our thinking.
Relationship and trust erode.
Instead, we need a practice of curiosity, imagination, and empathy.
In a workshop on racism and marginalization, we were asked to remember a time when we were rejected or marginalized or hurt or angry or threatened or insecure for some core part of who we are. Not one of us had trouble coming up with an experience of marginalization. And then we were asked to imagine that that marginalization happened every day of our lives, often multiple times, and of varying severity.
Curiosity, imagination, empathy; finding a small window in my own experience helped me connect to someone else’s story, without rewriting their experiences with my own.
A 2017 Heineken beer ad shows people who hold divergent opinions on feminism, transgender issues, and climate change, but don’t know it, tasked with putting together an ikea-like bar-in-a-box, complete with two stools. Sitting down at the bar, they then ask a series of predetermined questions of one another that help them understand what it’s like to be them. It is only after this that they are shown a video that reveals their fundamental differences in belief. Then, they are invited to stay for a beer together, or not. They do.
The ad celebrates the power of beer to bridge differences. And maybe our pub night attendees feel the same way. But I think it was the power of those other questions, for example, “Share the five adjectives that define your life,” that opened the doors to understanding, and broke down barriers between minds made-up on one hand, and open hearts on the other.
[It is here or on UUCD’s Facebook page for those who would like to watch it.]
Last week I talked about Jane Goodall and her beginner’s mind as she started her study of chimpanzees with no university education at all. It is that beginner’s mind that led her to original insights.
The more we apply the beginner’s mind to encounters with one another, the higher our potential for connection and learning.
May this be our aspiration, our spiritual practice in our relationships; something that we try to live into together, however imperfectly.
With each encounter of difference between us, we add to the sum total of our experiences. May that adding help us find bridges across our differences.
May we know that truth is not a zero sum game, with mine detracting from yours nor yours from mine.
And may this community love each of us fiercely just as we are, and too much to let us stay that way.
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