It was many years ago and as we all know the memory plays tricks on us.
But here is how I remember it:
I was in my college library. I used to get out of the office from time to time and go to the library just for some peace and quiet. I would take one book with me so I would not suffer from the distractions of the phone, the computer screen, knocks on the door, stacks of papers that needed to be graded or many ideas in other books that I needed to track down.
From time to time, I just needed to focus.
In this case, the focus was on a subject that I was not teaching. I was asked to teach speech class but the more I began to know about the academic discipline of speech communication, the more I began to see that “communications” teachers did not just teach how to get up in front of audiences and talk.
Don’t get me wrong. Teaching students to speak in front of groups is an admirable task. Many claim that man or woman’s greatest fear is speaking in front of groups [aka stage fright]. But that day, the one book I took to the library was an interpersonal communication book, a course that was not offered at my college. As I began to explore the chapters I was captivated, especially by the chapter on perception.
I knew people did not see “eye to eye” about much in the world. One person goes to a Stephen King horror movie and really likes it; another thinks the same movie is dumb and a waste of time and money. One person comments on how much they like their teacher, he knows his subject matter and makes it interesting and seems to really care about students. Another student thinks the same teacher is a creep. A Los Angeles Rams fan is really impressed with the team and tries to tell his feelings to his friend; “they are really going to contend for the Super Bowl.” The friend replies “That’s ok but I don’t believe that, and let me tell you, the great performance I saw at the Kennedy Center Honors was superb. That is my idea of impressive. I think football is awful.”
These conversations happen all the time and as I began to study the chapter on perception, I saw very clearly why people did not understand each other. Everyone [and I mean everyone] has their own unique way of processing information in this world. Some of us select information because it is intense, big or little, contrasting, repetitive, in motion, familiar or novel. The bottom line is that we all don’t select information the same way. Our sensory organs affect selection; some have acute sight or poor hearing. Some respond to touch in a negative manner while others have a strong sense of smell. After we select, we organize information and guess what; we don’t organize the same way. That is a unique process also. Finally, we interpret what we perceive or put meaning to it and that interpretation can be as different as night and day.
Interpersonal communication is the process of sending a message from one person to another [interpersonal or person to person]. When communication occurs, success or failure of the message is how well the thought of the speaker is recreated in the mind of the listener. I knew I wanted to teach this subject because I wanted to help people overcome some of the barriers that can cause us to be different. I wanted to help people understand other people despite all the ways we are unique.
With all these words devoted to my deep dark past, how does this relate to Mark Labberton’s book The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor?
When I read the Bible, I see a Jesus who has a great deal of empathy, He understand other’s perspectives. He knows the woman at the well is a sinner and He understands her sin but He also understands that her condemners are sinners too. Let he who is without blame cast the first stone. He knew they would drop their stones for they all sin. When He was told that He should spend less time with little children, He knew that they have pure hearts and He told them they are welcome. They don’t have the complex agendas of adults. When He was warned not to eat with tax collectors and other sinners, He knew that He was right where He was supposed to be. He says in Mark “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
It seems so obvious to me that to be like Jesus [a goal we might want to strive for] we need to be able to understand the barriers between people and work to overcome them. None of us is the same. Given the nature of our perceptions, it is a wonder that anyone can understand anyone else. How can we hope to help others that come from different perspectives?
We have to; that is our calling. As Christians, that is our number one job. Sure the barriers exist but we have to find what makes us alike, not focus on what makes us different.
Recently, I sat across the table during a lunch with one of my best friends. We have shared so much over the years, yet we are very different. I know it and he knows it. What he said that day meant so much to me because it showed me that differences can be overcome. He said “We don’t think alike on many things but we do on the important things; we both love the Lord and we both love our country.” It meant so much to hear him say this. We are connected.
We know that barriers exist but maybe they can be overcome.