I hung my winter coat on a rack at a church I was visiting, came back to the coat rack two hours later, and put on my coat. Walking to my car, I put my hands in my pocket. There was a bag of trail mix in my pocket that wasn’t there before. Someone must have put their trail mix in my coat by accident. I went back to the coat rack and, sure enough, right next to where I hung my coat was an identical coat. That’s it. They put it in the wrong coat. It never occurred to me the coat I put on was not mine. I put the trail mix in the other coat, left for the airport, and flew home. It wasn’t until I put the coat on again after we landed that I realized the coat didn’t quite fit the same. The sleeves were too long. It wasn’t my coat. The whole time I had the on wrong coat and I put the trail mix into my coat. Some poor guy wondered how his coat sleeves were suddenly too short.
That story has always been an example to me of how my mind works. I see things differently. I respond differently.
At first, being different is unsettling. When ten people around you react identically to a speaker’s question, a headline, a movie, or any shared experience and their reaction didn’t even cross your mind, it’s unsettling at first. But no more. It is part of who I am. It’s how I am wired. It allows me to see things others miss or overlook, even though at times I end up wearing someone else's coat.
I am on a mission now to help people see the world differently. We need this now more than ever. We live in a world of dizzying transformations happening all around us in almost every area of life — business, technology, globalization, education, climate, politics, ethics, and community. This stresses out some people and causes fear in others. But not for me. I am more hopeful. More optimistic. Recent books from Thomas Friedman, Jon Meacham and Daniel Walker Howe have reminded me we’ve been here before and that we have and will get through it. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “the better angels of our nature” will prevail. More importantly, my faith informs me that in the face of uncertainty in life, we have reasons for hope. We have action we can take. We can do something. We can open our minds, open our eyes, and talk with people who help us see the world differently. It may not seem like it to some, but different is good.
Open your mind
One of the most troubling parts of the recent political landscape has been the systematic closing of the minds. Not long ago, many not only resisted President Obama’s politics, but then refused to acknowledge anything good about the man or his work. Now, many resist President Trump’s politics and refuse to acknowledge anything good about the man or his work. “But there is nothing good about him,” many said or say of the president. That’s just not true. Nothing good? Zero redeeming qualities? Zero positive impact? If you just ramped up in your mind a hundred ways to refute what you just read, you can be right all day long and still have done nothing to resolve the larger problem. The collective impact of that mindset is our current condition as a people. Divisions. Anger. Mistrust. We are better than the deep divisions. We are better than the my-way-or-the-highway thinking. The soul of America is better than that. The funeral speakers on Saturday of the late Senator John McCain reminded all of us of this truth.
If we are to get past this, it must mean building bridges between people to replace the barriers. And that begins by opening up to others, which starts inside us. It begins with an open mind toward others. When you have an open mind, you might learn something from them. You might see the world from a new perspective that is helpful. You might make a surprising friend. You might find out you were wrong about something and that you are respected and loved even so. You might learn that different is good.
Open your eyes
It’s not just about being open to others, it is also how we see them. Every group or society has “those” people. The ones to be avoided. The ones who are bad. Immoral. Outsiders. Different. Those who don’t act, talk, or think like the others.
Have you ever noticed Jesus seemed to gravitate towards those very people? It was like a magnetic pull. The half-breed outsider Samaritans. The unclean lepers. The greedy tax collector. The low social status fishermen. Straight to them all. He didn’t see them with disdain. He saw them with care and compassion. He saw in them a person with intrinsic value.
We label people to remind us who we are not or who to avoid. Black, white. Rich, poor. Liberal, conservative. Gay, straight. Smart, dumb. Jesus removed the many labels and replaced them with one: LOVED BY GOD. What if you did that? What if we all did that? What if that is what we saw first? Imagine the world we would have.
If we saw people instead of labels, we would face an uncomfortable truth. We would see that other person has value. We would see shared humanity. We would see that the labels themselves are of secondary importance at best. Let me put it this way: conservatives, you should know that progressives love their spouses, love their country, go to church, play Monopoly, and enjoy gardening. Progressives, you should know that conservatives work for a better future for their children, are generous givers, like sports, and write poetry. Last I checked, neither side have horns on their head and carry a pitchfork. Neither side cook and eat their children.
People are basically looking for the same thing — love, friendship, meaningful work, and a way to be a part of something larger than themselves. Yes, we disagree. And yes, many of those subjects are important. No question. We need vigorous debate and discussion to decide together a course of action. But when we do, we still value the other person. We still signify they matter. Even Jesus’ tough talk with some (“you brood of vipers” comes to mind) was not to demean, devalue, or diminish the person. It was to break through the hard shell of the person to get to their heart. He still loved the person. Dehumanizing and attacking the other person is too far. And yet it happens all the time. If we could see people first before any label, especially the label of “enemy,” we might just find that different is good.
Spend time with people who are different
There is another way. Rather than react with anger or animosity toward those who are different, I have a better idea: get to know them. See them with open eyes and minds, and then connect with them personally.
Jesus not only saw in people what others could or would not, a person who mattered, but he also spent time with them. He talked to the immoral woman at the well. He had dinner with the hated tax collector. He talked about faith with the invalid everyone else had written off as handicapped because of personal sin.
There is a great scene in the movie Remember the Titans in which 1970’s high school football players in a newly racially integrated high school were forced to get to know one another during football camp. They were forced to talk with players who were racially different. They had to get to know each other’s names, families, favorite music, and interests. The movie shows how the team did what few around were doing then: found common ground and from there learned to truly love one another.
This is a good time to have a collective Remember the Titans approach to other people. It is a good time to get to know those who are different. It is time to connect human to human. Maybe our way forward out of this deep divisiveness, chronic anger, and barely concealed disdain is as easy as having a cup of coffee at Starbucks or a Coke at McDonalds. Maybe it is talking with people who are not like us to try to find points of connection.
Is that too simplistic? Maybe. Maybe not. Have you tried it? I have. I’ve connected with people with whom I still don’t agree on some key things, but I’ve made a few friends. Maybe you could too. And who knows, if we all did it, maybe we could change our world one cup of coffee at a time.