I grew up in an conservative christian community, proudly intolerant of all outsiders. From a young age I learned to look at these “others” with a mix of fear and pity – fear that their “lifestyles” would infect mine if given the slightest chance, pity that they were so committed to their hell-bound “worldly” ways. This attitude covered over everything from religious and cultural differences to sexual orientation and gender expression, even the smallest things like clothing, makeup, music, and people who let their kids do youth sports on sundays.
Their allegiance was clear, I was taught. They have put their desires, their interests, their very selves before the will of almighty. They were doomed. We would be too, if not for the grace of God and the prick of the holy spirit keeping us from listening to Evanescence and shopping at Hot Topic. (What? You didn’t also confess that sin of worldliness in your prayer journal numerous times between 2001 and 2003? Well. The Lord knows your heart.)
We weren’t without compassion. Like any person convinced everyone around us was going to burn alive for eternity, we did our part to rescue them. We had VBS programs and summer mission trips and I even went to public school so I could get a great free education while witnessing to my friends. In fact, our public school attendance was quite controversial in our church because the truly holy families sent their kids to our church christian school. I made up for this by starting bible studies at lunch and doing prayer walks before school with several other zealous and painfully awkward teenagers. To my memory, we weren’t angry or hostile towards others. But we didn’t really have any contact with people who didn’t share our beliefs. We were happily settled into a world of sameness.
It wasn’t until adulthood when I began to encounter these “others” as more than caricatures. They became my colleagues and neighbors and friends. We swapped stories about our weekends and lines from our favorite shows. We cared for clients and neighbors and friends. We planned a community garden. I babysat their children. Slowly, my horizons expanded. I learned about the diverse city I was making a home in, the people who were so different from me, until they weren’t. Until the differences gave way to a surprising amount of common ground, similar desires, values, dreams.
But all this stretching and learning and listening doesn’t happen quickly or come easily. Podcasts became my refuge – a powerful but safe, introvert-friendly way to explore other worlds while I worked up the courage to actually set foot in them.
There’s this intimacy to storytelling via podcast – a sense that there is no distance between the storyteller and the listener. I am not some faceless member of an audience, watching a performer on a stage. No, with the help of my ear buds I am sitting right across from this brave soul. They are speaking their beautiful life right into my heart.
There are a few important things that happen when we learn to really listen to each other’s stories.
First, we gain valuable practical information to help us understand another’s world. That might be terminology or maybe an overview of cultural practices, it might even be historical data that we’ve never heard before. This information serves to fill in gaps in our most basic understanding of others – what sort of culture shaped this person to be who they are? What are the terms they use to describe their world, and what do they mean?
Second, storytelling humanizes. It’s easy to be afraid of someone, to allow the shadows in our understanding to become menacing and intentional. Luckily, it’s just as easy to adopt a posture of curiosity and wonder. When I listen to someone tell a story about their life, I am instantly transported into their shoes. When they share what the heartache felt like after their mother died, I feel a pang too. When I hear a story about a personal triumph, I share in their joy. But here’s the thing: if we do not practice empathy, our capacity for it atrophies. Luckily, the reverse is true: the more we practice this posture of curiosity and active listening, the more natural it becomes, and fear loses power.
Third, storytelling offers a safe environment to encounter and consider new ideas. From the safety of my own earbuds I can can learn about people who live very different lives, have very different values, and want very different things. No response required. I don’t have to mask my emotions if I am shocked or disgusted or confused. I don’t have to draw any conclusions or make any judgments. Stories have softened me. They’ve evaporated my fear.
Somewhere along the way I realized that the fear was self-imposed. No one was ever trying to take apart my beliefs, to win me over to some dark side. That nervous feeling I felt, the feeling I relied on and believed was telling me something dangerous was happening – that’s just the feeling of growing. The feeling of opening to new ideas, new questions, new possibilities. If we lean into it gently, patiently, there is no limit to what we will discover about the world, and about ourselves. Isn’t that wonderful?
Now I can’t wait to tell people about the fascinating worlds I’m discovering through my headphones. I’m no longer afraid of the harsh light that black and white thinking casts on the world because these stories have helped me to see the vibrant spectrum of hues that were invisible to me before.
The phrase “I wonder…” has served me so well on this journey. It helps me to turn my quick judgments into opportunities for growth. I wonder what it’s like to be a refugee, fleeing on a flimsy rubber boat. I wonder what it would feel like to live in a body that didn’t reflect how I felt on the inside. I wonder what it’s like to be Muslim in america. I wonder what it will be like to look back on my life at 50 or 75 or 90. I wonder what it would be like to live as an immigrant in a big city, or a small, rural town. I wonder.
But even with that posture, we live in an exhausting time. In the era of soundbites, it is easy, necessary even, to keep our guard up against the onslaught of polarizing opinions and extreme reactions. We learn to filter out everything we disagree with because we just do not have the energy to deal with it. Storytelling, a practice as old as human civilization, reminds us we are bound together by our humanity and helps us to process these complexities together.
If you’re afraid, cautious, too principled to wonder about how another lives as they do, I encourage you to try listening to a story told by someone in the group you fear. I love This American Life and The Moth for short, powerful glimpses into the lives other people lead. If a podcast feels like too much, you might try reading some of the short interviews on Humans of New York. That prickle of discomfort is the itch of growing pains. The stretch of becoming, making room for more love and understanding. Preparing you to see and flourish in a more colorful, vibrant world.
I’m preparing to attend a conference this weekend. A christian conference. My first foray back into christian culture in some time. The group hosting it has created a sort of counter culture that challenges every exclusive, dualistic fiber of conservative Christianity, re-imagining the faith with love and hope and plenty of space for a spectrum of beliefs and questions. They are the loveliest people. But I am terrified. I am so anxious about exposing myself to “church people” again. So nervous about our differences of experience and beliefs. Dreading what conclusions my friends at both ends of the spectrum will draw about me attending something like this. It’s all fear.
So I’m taking some time this week to practice this meditation of wonder. To consider and breathe space for the possibilities. To listen for the stories, let go of judgments, and just be present to the experience.
It is through listening that we gain eyes to see more than what is visible – to understand what has been and imagine what can be.