Sometimes I wonder how it is that each of us can have such a different perspective on life, arriving at conclusions as varied as the colors in a rainbow. It’s as if we all have on a different set of glasses, filtering our thoughts and lives through its unique perspective. It’s astonishing, really, how we can come to any kind of consensus at all when our lives are such complicated mazes of this and that. A perfectly normal event from one angle can be seen from another angle as a complete outrage. One person’s fight for freedom is another person’s act of sedition.
I’m seeing more and more that the method of “boiling it down”, “it” being situations, people, arguments, ideas, etc., is one of the worst ways to approach life, yet it is such a hard thing to unlearn. It goes like this: I’ve learned my whole life, through a wonderful education, that a quick shortcut to doing well in school is “boiling it down” to what you “need to know”. Don’t get lost in the trees and miss the forest. So, instead of really trying to wrap my brain around difficult concepts, I take the easier approach and memorize the acronym for the test, ready to sum up, in a nutshell, the main points of this argument or that theory.
It turns out that this method of processing information is terribly unsuited for really arriving at satisfying conclusions in life. But it just gets easier and easier to do. You quickly turn from boiling down the facts for the test to boiling down “those democrats” or “those republicans” to whatever label is easiest to understand. As this boiling down process starts to infect other areas of your life, it gets to be a kind of disease that paralyzes you from sympathizing with anyone that looks at life remotely differently than you do.
Before we know it, we end up looking around and all we see are people who look exactly like us, talk exactly like us, and think exactly like us. Maybe it’s easier this way, but it sure doesn’t involve any effort on our part to make our inner character translate to outer actions. The fact is, the most challenging and rewarding times in my life have come when I’ve been around people who’ve thought differently and approached life differently than I do. The summer I spent at Food for the Hungry with college students from all around the country, the year I spent on University Ministries council with people from different backgrounds, these were each moments in my life when my character was being sharpened.
These kinds of experiences have been good for me, I think, for several reasons. First of all, I’ve come to see the incredible value of truly listening to other people. I remember early on in my studies, one of my professors said that the whole idea of “putting yourself in the other persons shoes” was a terrible way to actually try and understand the perspective of someone else. And you know what, it’s true. It’s impossible for me to understand what another person is going through 95% of the time. But by opening my ears and heart and listening, truly listening, I can open up a flow of compassion that can speak to that person more than my feeble attempts to understand them. Listening really does matter.
I also found out quickly that one of the most important virtues I can seek from the Lord is wisdom. How do you know when to truly stand up for what you believe? How do you know when to shut up and listen? How do you, on the one hand, not cut off the other persons’ ear, and on the other stand up for what you believe even when it's not popular? It’s where the daily walk of faith is so vitally important, and where seeking after wisdom like a thirsty deer seeking water becomes a daily necessity. Wisdom is that intangible, and it’s only learned from the Father of wisdom. And, for those times when wisdom escapes me, it’s good to ask for forgiveness and seek reconciliation, for love covers a multitude of things.
I wonder how we each can see life so differently, but then again, maybe I’m glad that we do, because life wouldn’t be so interesting if everyone thought exactly like me.