A couple times a week, my wife Alanna and I have the privilege of sitting together to share a cup of coffee and a conversation. Don’t get the wrong idea, we don’t have fantastically deep conversations about life, beauty, and the grand nature of things every time. But, sometimes, we do.
This morning we talked about being present with people. Especially people who aren’t like you, don’t think like you, talk like you, or value the things you value—and how more and more it feels difficult to be present with them. This is not new. There have always been differences among people.
The challenge I feel these days is to be a person who is putting in the hard work of conversing with people with whom I have differences.
Alanna agreed, adding “People don’t talk to each other anymore, we just shout back and forth.” Its not unlike when my dog starts barking for no reason, and I yell “hey!” and then he barks back. And then I yell “HEY!” and then he barks back matching my volume.And then I yell “HEY! KNOCK IT OFF!!”and he barks back matching my tone, volume and length! (Does he think we’re playing a game?!)
Clearly we aren’t communicating with each other.
The same is true in the way people “communicate." In an interview with David Letterman, author, actress and director Tina Fey, said that talking to people over the last couple years has been like playing hopscotch with landmines. It seems almost dangerous to converse with people. Especially those with whom we differ.
Part of the difficulty, I said to Alanna, is that our English language has been booby trapped without us really realizing it. There are certain words or phrases, soundbites and half sentences, that when used, immediately land you in a particular camp. We paint with broad strokes, calling people Left or Right based on the language they use. Each broad camp has words and phrases that are associated with it. It seems as though we’ve lost the ability to communicate nuance. The minute you employ a word or phrase typically associated with a particular side is the same minute you are dropped into a bucket of people who all think, act, and live in a particular way. (We’ve apparently let our communication strategy follow Facebook’s advertising algorithm.)
Remember the Sorting Hat from Harry Potter? As the new students arrived at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, they would go through a ceremony in which the Sorting Hat would be placed on the head of each new student to magically search their heart and mind for character traits and values. Each student was then, based on the findings, sorted into one of four houses, kind of like a tribe.
We’ve all become like the Sorting Hat.
The problem is that we don’t listen to the nuances of people’s hearts and minds to learn their character traits and values, we simply assign them to a position based on some buzz words and then let the yelling begin—trying to match tone, volume and length. Its like getting into a shouting match with my dog. We aren’t really communicating.
All of this makes it difficult to be present with people. But perhaps I shouldn’t put that on you. So let me clarify, and see if you can identify with me. All of this makes it difficult for me to be present with people. For example, here’s my own confession: I went into the city this past weekend for dinner with friends. (That sentence alone might have led some of you reading this to put me in a bucket based on the fact that I had to travel into the city.) After dinner and dessert and a stroll through some neighborhoods, I left the city feeling overwhelmed. As I tried to articulate my feelings to Alanna in the car, it came down to this:
I felt like there were so many people shouting their values at me all the time with words, phrases or soundbites. Everything is so in your face—from smaller bumper stickers, to medium sized yard signs, to giant flags in windows or hanging from houses. Just a bunch of un-nuanced, buzzwords and phrases being silently shouted at everyone passing by. I found it overwhelming. It made me want to leave. To be clear, it wasn’t because I was opposed to all of the opinions of those stickers, signs or flags represented. It was because it was like walking through the middle of a silent yet strenuous shouting match.
As we walked the streets I could feel my Sorting Hat heart, trying to quickly sort everyone into their houses or tribes based on what I could see, read or hear…not listening for their character and values after searching the nuances of the minds and hearts of people.
It makes presence difficult. It makes me want to retreat to people who only use words and phrases of the tribe I’m in. It makes me want to retreat to my “holy” huddle.
And yet, as a Jesus follower, I think I’m called to be present in the shouting match. Not to offer another screaming voice. But letting Jesus’ life be on display in mine. I’m not saying its wrong to hang your flag, post a sign in your lawn, or put a sticker on your car (actually, don’t put stickers on your car, its just not good for the value of the vehicle). What I am saying is that I don’t want my life to be defined by soundbites or a silent shouting match of buzzwords and phrases. I want to live my character and values—not shout them. I want to let my life speak.
I want the opportunity to add nuance, not be so quickly sorted.
But if I want these things, I need to follow Jesus toward being present with others, to give others the same opportunity. To search for values and character. To not sort them by soundbites, stickers, or whatever silent shouting they do.
Its time I start wondering a little more deeply what it is that leads people to the decisions they make. And that will require being present with them.
If I can’t possibly understand why a person thinks or believes what they think or believe, then that’s my fault. It means I haven’t been present long enough, or wondered deeply enough with them. I haven’t searched the nuances of their hearts and minds to learn their values and character.
Who specifically have you avoided being present with because you’ve already “sorted” them in your heart? I’m not talking about an ambiguous people group. I’m talking about someone specific: a coworker, a neighbor, or a friend or family member? What would it look like for you to "be present" with them?
Even more than that, could you imagine how different our world would look like? How different our social media news feeds, family dinners, or communities could look?
Let's do this together. Let's be present.