We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. -Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy
Observing the political climate, both in the U.S. and around the world, I’ve been thinking a lot about fear and anger and the absence of compassion. I’ve seen these at play, usually aggressive play, in both far-off places and close to home.
In the Bible we read the oft-repeated message: “Be not afraid.” Do we trust these words? Do we heed them?
The message we receive from the media, which many of us see and hear more often than the Bible is “Be afraid. Be afraid! Be very afraid!” These words cater to our basest instincts. When should we trust them?
Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions. – George W. Bush
When we fear – the “other,” terror, pain, loss, death – we judge unequally and act defensively, assuming the worst of people and situations; our fight, flight, or freeze response kicks in. Instead of seeing other beloved children of God, we see threats and we act accordingly.
I won’t deny that many scary things are happening around us; our world is broken and continues to break into pieces.
But we have a choice about how to approach broken places and broken people.
We can choose fear.
Or we can choose love.
We can choose to close ourselves off or open ourselves wider.
Ever since I heard about it, I’ve been fascinated by the Urban Confessional, a loosely connected group of people from thirteen countries whose sole purpose is to listen to other people, strangers on the street. Participants in the project go to public places and stand with signs that say “Free Listening.” When someone approaches a listener, the listener puts the sign down, focuses attention on the person who wants to be heard, and listens to whatever he or she might offer. The listener may ask questions, but gives no advice or critique. Only the gift of listening. “Only” the gift of open-hearted time.
I want to join the Urban Confessional. I plan to. I need to practice listening… a lot. I preach the importance of listening much better than I practice the skill.
A few people in my life know how to push my buttons. Though most of the time I am able to heed my better senses, sometimes I allow myself to get caught up in heated exchanges, too often in the online sphere (mistake #1). When I do it, I feel my body tense, my heartrate speed up, and my sense of self-righteousness swell. These are not moments I’m proud of. My goal in “listening” then is only to form a better argument: why I’m right and how they’re wrong.
I was telling this story to someone who responded, “If you have to be right, you’ve already lost.”
I’ve lost many times. I’m sure I’ll lose many more. But I’m trying.
“I will give you a new heart,” the Lord says, “and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). That’s what we must pray for… a heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens. – President Barack Obama
Recently a local visionary led a workshop in which he spoke about the year he spent listening to talk radio that didn’t align with his belief system. In doing so, he hoped to diminish the power of ideas and words that triggered his ire. He wanted to learn to listen in a way that always honored the common kinship of humanity and always recognized the inherent dignity of the other person, even when they saw the world through very different lenses. He wanted to honor relationship over ideology.
Maybe listening to strangers will help me listen better to people I know and help me to honor relationship over ideology. Maybe listening to strangers will slowly pry open my heart, so there is space for the fears and hopes and challenges of anyone I may encounter.
Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” [Abraham] said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” Genesis 18:23-26, 31-33
We are all affected when one person treats others with compassion. The goodness, while perhaps seemingly insignificant, ripples and magnifies, bonding pieces once broken apart. Through listening, wide-open-hearted listening, we walk through fear and anger, towards compassion. Through listening we create an abundance of mercy. This abundance can sustain the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Through deep listening, love and understanding can make us forgiving and caring, just and fair. As we grow in the presence of mercy, we free ourselves as much as we empower others.