What’s it like to be on the inside? How is being on the inside different from being on the outside?
As I walk through my neighborhood, I pass the homes of my neighbors. I have impressions about what it’s like to be inside of those homes, to be members of those families. Yes, I’ve been inside some of the homes and know what they look like in terms of floor plans and furnishings. But is my impression of these homes, the outside view, the same as being inside – “inside” in the way the members of the family are “insiders?” How different is the outside view from the inside experience? How are my perceptions of their reality reflections of my own life and experience?
Most of us make assumptions and judgments about others based on what we observe from the outside. The assumptions and judgments we make often reflect our experiences rather than the experience of the other. The words of the Lakota proverb come to mind in this regard: Don’t judge another until you have walked a mile in his or her shoes. Yet, it is the human tendency to make assumptions, judgments, and presumptions about the lives of others based on the perspective of being outside of their world. Yes, I have the tendency to do this just as much as others.
As I read the daily news, I find many people telling us about the experiences of those different from themselves. The patterns of those with an outside perspective reporting on an inside experience include millionaire politicians who have never struggled for work telling us what life is like for those who are poor and unemployed; religious leaders who are familiar with the experience of their sheltered church explaining what it’s like to be in a gay marriage with children; and people who have lived all their lives in homogenous communities who speak with great conviction about the agenda held by immigrant Muslims.
When we make assumptions, presumptions, and judgments about others based on our perspective that’s outside the experience of others, we are likely to draw incorrect conclusions about them. We put the other in a box and categorize them in a way that diminishes their humanity. Once they are in a category, we never have to given them further consideration because we presume to know what is worth knowing about them. This way of thinking reduces the other to something they are not. It also narrows us and our view of the world by preventing us from experiencing what is true and good in life.
Some years ago, I was asked to be a speaker at a seminar on ethics. One of the other speakers was a man from Australia. Between sessions and over meals, I enjoyed talking with him and had many laughs telling stories about our lives. One day, during his presentation on the environment and ethics, I became very uncomfortable with what he said. As a Roman Catholic priest who taught at a seminary in Rome, he found it necessary to address abortion and gay marriage while speaking about the environment. His statements included claims that women who have abortions always experience intense guilt and deep depression and that gay people can’t sustain long term relationships therefore their relationships can’t be sacramental. He went on to say that he volunteered as a chaplain in a hospice for people with AIDS and has yet to meet a gay man in an enduring, satisfying relationship.
Several women in the group quickly challenged his comments about abortion. Simply, research in both psychology and medicine doesn’t support the claim. Some women have depression following an abortion. Many of those women have a history of depression. A correlation between abortion and depression doesn’t exist. His response to the women was to become defensive and eventually change the subject.
Noting his behavior, I decided to speak with him privately about his comments regarding gay couples. To that end, the next day, over lunch, I asked if I could talk with him about the presentation. He said that he’d welcome my thoughts. I then told him that I am an openly gay man and in a long term relationship. I explained that my experience of the relationship was sacramental: that the relationship helped to draw me out of a false sense of self toward becoming the person I was created to be. I suggested that since he said that he hadn’t met anyone like me, that based on our new friendship I’d be happy to share my experience or answer any questions he might have. His response was simple, “No thanks, mate. I know all I need to know.”
Seeming to change the topic, I said, “I find that my spiritual life is rooted in Eastern Christianity. I often pray with icons.” Looking relieved, he asked what that was like for me. I proceeded to reflect on the traditional icon of the Trinity: three angels seated at a table sharing a meal. I explained that a great saint of the Eastern Christian Church, Maximus, described the image of the trinity as the Father gazing in love at the Son and the Son gazing in love at the Father. In that love, they breathe together resulting in the emanation of the Holy Spirit. He smiled and nodded. I continued: “That’s exactly how I understand my relationship with my partner. We are held together in love and together we emanate something more than either of us alone.” I concluded by saying that through prayer I had come to understand my life with my partner as rooted in the life of the Triune God.
As I spoke, his face became more stoic. He left the table after I finished speaking. For the remainder of the conference, he did not attend any of my presentations. When we passed, he did not acknowledge me or even look in my direction.
It would be easy to condemn his response. However, his own response condemned him to not seeing, experiencing, or understanding something that was offered to him by closing me off, he was closing himself to the possibility of experiencing something good and true from an insider’s experience. I never asked him to agree but to listen.
Most of us find it difficult to be open to enough to encounter people as they are rather than making assumptions and judgments about them. Fear often prevents them from encountering something that is outside of their experience. It’s important to realize that such judgments not only put the other into a box and limits the person but the judgments also limit the experience and development of the person who makes the judgments.
Yes, it would be easy to judge the man from Australia for his reaction. But isn’t that just doing the same thing he did to me? While I was hurt and frustrated by the way he closed himself to me, today I feel very sad for him. This bright and talented man failed to grow to be the person he was created to be. His outside perspective of my experience prevented him from being open to something that could have enlarged his life. Sadly, the same limitations prevent many people from growth and wholeness.
© 2012, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.