Making Room – Connecting across difference and finding grace

A reflection

Greetings! I’m here to invite you on a journey, a magical journey that can take place over a very long time or just a few seconds. I’ve taken this journey myself a number of times in the last few years, and I’m starting to see the stages of it more clearly.

I’ve been thinking lately about many things: about cultural differences, about hospitality, about connecting across difference. About how to do it, and why to do it. And I’ve noticed that the path I take as I navigate these things, and the places along the path, are starting to look familiar.

When I’m around people who come from a culture different from my own white European cultural roots, when I’m engaged in community service, for example, I often notice behaviors that are different from what I’m used to. Some of them make me uncomfortable! How many of you, for example, have had an interaction with someone who had a different idea of how close to get during a face-to-face conversation, or what kind of eye contact was appropriate? ….. How did you feel?

And that’s the first stage in the journey: noticing how I feel. Noticing that I’m feeling uncomfortable, or annoyed, or perhaps even hurt by what someone else is doing. Shifting into awareness. Being mindful.

Often, for example, this has to do with the volume of sound that another person or group is producing. There are a few situations in European American culture where “being loud” is okay, or even expected. Sporting events and rock concerts come to mind. But mostly it’s not okay, and even the phase “being loud” has negative connotations in the culture I grew up in. If someone else is “being loud” my first reaction, very often, is irritation and disapproval. Sometimes quite strong irritation and disapproval.

Once I was backpacking with a friend and we met a young couple hiking with music blaring away. Out in the Yosemite wilderness, two days walk from any road, this felt painfully out of place to us. We didn’t comment on it; we just said “hi, how are you;” but when they were out of earshot my friend said (in a funny sing-song way) “I’m feeling judgmental!”

When I notice I’m feeling irritated or judgmental, I’m training myself to move into curiosity, the next stage on the journey. I start to wonder: Why am I feeling this? What’s behind this? And is it possible there is a cultural practice, belief, or expectation that is influencing me?

“Culture”, by the way, doesn’t have to be ethnic. Unitarian Universalism has a culture that is different from other religions, and our church has a culture that is different from other UU churches. Deaf people have a unique culture.  Different generations have their own cultures. We’re starting to talk about changing the culture of our church, and I believe the process I’m describing today offers a way for us to do it intentionally, with awareness and choice about what we’re doing.

“Culture” includes many things. Culture is like an iceberg, with obvious elements above the waterline like language, food, dress, literature and music. Below the waterline are things we sometimes don’t recognize as culture at all. A lot of them are attitudes and beliefs: about leadership, or child-rearing, or courtship, or death, or friendship, or modesty. Many of them have to do with what behaviors are considered appropriate in different contexts. And a key facet of these “below the waterline” cultural characteristics is — if we’re part of the dominant culture — these things can be invisible to us. They can be so ingrained in us we don’t even know they’re there. So a big part of this process is making the invisible visible. Learning to see more of what has been just part of what is. And that’s the next stage on the journey: openness, learning. Learning to see the invisible and to realize that perhaps my way isn’t the one right way, the “natural” human way. Perhaps it’s something I learned, and other people learned other ways. Perhaps there isn’t one right way. This is cultural humility.

Cultural humility is a great place to be in. In our journey it’s on the edge of a vast open field sparkling with possibilities. But cultural humility in itself is not enough. To actually move into that field is another big step on the journey.

You see, I’ve noticed in myself that even when I’ve had this great insight, when I’ve realized that my way is not the only way and there are other ways that could be equally valid, that doesn’t automatically mean I want to change. Sometimes I feel very stubborn at this point. Sometimes I really like my way! It’s comfortable and comforting. If different ways are equally valid, why should I give up mine? <Has anyone else ever felt that?> And my message today is not that we always should. My message is that I believe there are times when it will be worthwhile, when the rewards will exceed the cost, sometimes far exceed the cost.

When I’m in this state of what I call stubborn understanding, I have a choice. I can choose not to move, to stay where I am. That is a valid option. Or I can choose to make room for someone else’s way of being. One way to do that is to compromise; to meet in the middle. In worship, for example, we’re moving towards making room for all our different worship styles. Not for someone to preach hellfire and brimstone; but for all of us to see ourselves reflected in worship.

Another option, I’ve found, is to shift into generosity, to intentionally choose some degree of discomfort in order to make someone else feel at home, so they can relax and be themselves. This is a gift I give the other person, to make room for them to be themselves. I’m not talking martyrdom here — I’m not into that — just taking on some amount of discomfort in exchange for the pleasure of seeing someone else able to relax in the freedom of being themselves. And when they’re free to be themselves, when they’re not guarded by the need to conform to my standards, we have the opportunity to meet in a place of openness and acceptance, as two human beings, two beautiful human beings who have found each other. It’s a process of intentionally letting go of my ideas of “the right way”and “the wrong way” to see what opens up between us. As Rumi said,

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.

For me, this is a way to reach that field. And I’ve found that when I’m there, the element of sacrifice I felt in giving up some comfort transforms into a blessing, an awareness of grace. Instead of giving, I am receiving. I meet the other person with humility and appreciation. I realize their presence is a blessing. I receive this blessing. Sometimes I still feel the discomfort — and at the same time I feel blessed. “When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.”

Let’s go back to that moment of generosity I just mentioned. The process of giving something to someone can be problematic. It can come from a “Poor you – I’m taking care of you” attitude. I’m talking here about a different kind of generosity, one that comes from humility, from saying “In this moment, I’m not the most important person here.” It comes from moving myself and my own needs and desires out of the center, and instead centering someone else. I’m not dismissing my own needs and desires — I’m not throwing them out — just moving them off center temporarily.

I have spoken previously about my relationship to the sacred emptiness; about meeting someone else with a metaphorical empty bowl between us, where there is room for us to meet, to learn about each other, and to create something new and wonderful together. If my wants and needs are filling the space between us, there isn’t room for much else to happen. I’ve come to see my desire for comfort as a barrier to connection, as something that takes up a lot of space between me and other people. I’m not against comfort. The older I get, the more attractive it is. When I’m backpacking now I have a bigger tent, a thicker pad, a warmer sleeping bag. When I was in my 20s, I used my boots as a pillow. Those days are over! The fact is, these days, my life is pretty darn comfortable. It’s a privilege I have. At the same time, I’ve found that occasionally choosing to be less comfortable can bring a big reward.

Sometimes what gets in the way isn’t comfort, it’s my need to make plans and manage things. A few years ago, at the end of Beloved Conversations (an anti racism curriculum that Rev. María Cristina and I co-led for two years) we brought both class cohorts together for a shared meal. What I wanted to do during this meal was get organized for the future: decide what to do, create a new organization, identity participants, list action items. What Rev. María Cristina wanted to do was go around the circle and say what we were grateful for about BC. (Those of you who have been studying the document by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun on characteristics of white supremacy culture will recognize what I wanted to do as a perfect illustration of this.) Now I will tell you: I was really attached to my plans. I felt like Jacob wrestling with the angel. In the end, though, I yielded to the angel and gave up my plans — and it turned out so much better. Instead of the business meeting I would have created, we connected on a deep heart level. It was a spiritual experience.

This is the journey for me in a nutshell: to recognize when my wants and needs are getting in the way, to look for a way to move them off center, and to be open to whatever ensues. I never know exactly what it will be, but I love the adventure of the journey, and often it has brought me to a place of deep connection with another human being. And this, more than anything, is what makes life worth living for me.