This is my first guest post that I’ve ever done on another blog, and I’d like to thank Shayne for giving me the time and space to share my thoughts. I am especially aware that I am an atheist being invited to write something here on a blog that does talk about Christianity, which is perhaps one of the greatest honors I’ve ever been bestowed. So, all that being said, I’d like to get down to the thought I’d like to share today.
There’s not much that separates people from each other.
What I mean by this is that we as people have a lot of categories that we fall into. Depending upon one’s gender, ethnicity, country of origin, and personal outlook, a human being can go through life wearing many different hats with many different names on them. I myself have had the label of son, brother, Christian, student, lawyer, bank teller, atheist, lunatic, nerd, and many others. We all slip in and out of these roles in our lives comfortably and without giving much thought to them.
Sometimes, the labels are divisive.
For example, suppose someone prefers the toilet paper to fall under the roll as opposed to above the roll. Depending upon one’s point of view, this can cause quite heated arguments over bathroom logistics. Such a misstep over how the TP falls can cause familial rifts and people to not visit each other’s houses. And all of this is over how gravity affects paper used to wipe one’s posterior.
Okay, I exaggerate. But there are labels which divide us more than others. Pro-life or pro-choice, pro-gun or pro-gun control, we can see camps of people forming around certain ideas. Be a member of the group, or you are against the group. The idea is important over all other considerations. Notice, though, how the idea diminishes or elevates people, depending upon agreement. People who agree with one’s point-of-view are fellow champions of the cause. People who disagree become a faceless monolith. Sometimes they do have faces and names, but those are simply seen as agents of The Enemy.
I learned about this phenomenon in law school as part of an advanced class on appellate advocacy. Essentially the principle is no different than that of storytelling. People who agree with us get our sympathy, and people who disagree with us get marginalized. It’s part of how we do things. In order to be a better advocate, I’d have to make my side more sympathetic. Instinctively, the judges would start agreeing with me and disagreeing with the other guys.
I still am not happy with these instincts.
At the time, I was still a Christian, and I learned that I could subconsciously try to diminish the value of people. Growing up in Church, a big deal was made about loving other people. Good people turn the other cheek, they forgive people, and they do their best to live according to the ideal of Christ. In short: they treat other people how they’d like to be treated. What that meant at the time was that I should work on empathy rather than dismissing people out of hand.
Even now that I no longer have my faith, I still think that treating people in the same manner is a desirable thing to do. And switching labels led me to another thought; I didn’t change everything about myself just by changing a label. There are still parts of me that react in awe to things, and I still crave respect and good will from people.
I will be the first person to admit that I don’t always get it right. Sometimes I disagree with people on a wide range of issues. At the least, though, I will have to accept that most people are trying to do the best they can with what they have. Marginalizing others isn’t going to help me get my point across, and feeling marginalized isn’t going to help me understand other points of view. So, when I can, I try to remember this important fact.
At the end of the day, people are still people.
Empathy is a great way to build connections with other human beings. It facilitates the desire for understanding and communication. It will also help people forgive transgressions and seek meaningful solutions to problems. Commitment is more possible with empathy. And enmity is diminished with empathy.
I can also say that it’s important regardless of whether or not one shares the same labels that I do. Christians may value it for different reasons than atheists, and both may value it differently than Buddhists. At some level, it is valued. And placing that value upon it will let Christians, atheists, and Buddhists alike all overcome our basic nature and see past others’ labels. Most importantly, it doesn’t require that we all start agreeing with each other. Instead, we can recognize where we disagree while finding places where there are common ground. I think it’s a powerful sentiment to express.
Of course, there are times when this seems impossible, just as there are practical limitations to good will. But what I’m really getting at is an idea that unless someone’s trying to physically hurt me, I should at least hear that person out. And hearing someone out is a big deal. It implies that one is willing to forgo one’s initial reactions to entertain another’s point of view. We also don’t have an infinite amount of time on this planet, so there’s the added gift of that time given to someone else.
Writing this, I’m grateful to everyone who has given me the time to hear me out. Such a gift isn’t lost on me, nor should it be. So I’d like to thank y’all for listening. It shows a great depth of character and a whole lot of compassion. If you haven’t taken the time to feel good about anything you’ve done today, I humbly ask you to take a few minutes to appreciate the gift you’ve given me.