What if you were you and I was me – and we both were okay with that? In other words, what if rather than engage in what seems to be one of America’s favorite pastimes of trying to recreate one another in our own image we instead dedicated that same effort into learning who the other is and knowing them as they are?
I never really understood how pervasive the American fetish for knowing and understanding others not as they really are – after all, that takes time and we aren’t really all that interested – but rather as our knee jerk first reaction, stereotypes, and biases would have them be was until I started pursuing ordination – and especially after ordination. Suddenly people who had known me for years decided they really didn’t know me, and people who just met me knew everything about me – or so they thought. Even better, the people would meet me while I was not wearing a clergy shirt they most definitely knew the kind of person I was, and one of the things they knew was that I was most definitely not a member of the clergy or a spiritual teacher.
How often do we take the time to stop and really hear what people have to say, to really learn who they are? On some level many of us wish someone, anyone at all really, would just take the time to get to know us as we really are – but are we willing to take the first step by becoming interested, truly interested, in other people? Are we willing to listen to their story, to hear what’s on their minds, and to get to know them as they really are? It is an investment of time and energy to do so, but the payoff on the investment is that others become interested in who we are – even if only because they want to understand what kind of crazy person would be willing to take the time to really get to know them! I have heard people say that they are very busy and they just don’t have the time to stop and listen to someone’s story during the course of their day. I am willing to admit that most people don’t have the time to hear everyone’s story over the course of a day, but I also can’t help but feel that much of our busyness is self-manufactured as evidence of our importance (or, perhaps more accurately, as a tool to cover up our own feelings of insignificance) and that we all can find time to listen to someone’s story every day.
I’d suggest you start with the people closest to you. Much of the malaise in long-standing relationships of every kind is due to the fact that we assume the person we have known for so long hasn’t changed a bit since the day we met them. That simply isn’t possible. We stop talking about the things that mean the most to us because we assume we already know – but how can we possibly know if the last time we checked in was five years ago? The truth is that the priorities of our consumer capitalist culture are stacked against relationships of any kind enduring over time because so much of our time is dedicated to making money. Making money is a double-edged sword because it decreases our own sense of value as an individual and keeps us away from the people we are trying to be in enduring relationships with, both friends and family, for most of the week. Preachers and politicians can prattle on all they want about the strength of the family and marriage, but their words are rather meaningless in the face of an economic system that actually devalues and discourages spending time together and remaining connected.
If we really want to make a change in our lives, we need to examine our priorities and change them if we discover they don’t reflect our values. Life is too short to sleep walk through it, doing the same things over and over because “it’s how we’ve always done it.” We need to show the people we value how we feel by investing our time and energy into them. If people say they value us but are always too busy to spend time with us, we may have to make some decisions that aren’t easy but are nevertheless necessary. We also need to learn how to say “no” to added commitments that will take us away from the people and causes that are most important to us. It’s all part of laying the groundwork necessary to living authentically – and happily!