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  Hearing the Voices and Experiences of Others
by Earle Donelson, Ph.D.

If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view....Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.
—Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

I remember first seeing To Kill A Mockingbird when I was very young. To an eight or nine year old, it was simply a sad and sometimes frightening movie. When I saw it again in my teens, at the old Memphian theater, it was a profoundly moving film. Its messages about racism and doing the right thing were very powerful. Its characters—Atticus, Jem, Scout, Dill, Tom Robinson, Calpurnia, Bob Ewell, and Boo Radley—offered compelling images of the nature of good and evil to my emerging morality and growing awareness. Memphis, Tennessee, in the late 1960s was engulfed in issues concerning race. As a teen, I was exposed to widely divergent perspectives as to the implications embedded in the color of one’s skin.

As children, we often look to our parents, family, friends or adults for guidance in understanding the world around us. We are like sponges, absorbing what we see and hear. As teens and adults, we are exposed to a variety of perspectives, beliefs and experiences that shape our sense of self, values and beliefs. Sometimes we seek out others we know, admire or respect for insights about specific issues or problems; sometimes we simply hear or observe someone doing something good or bad. We are also bombarded by images from TV, the Internet, movies, sports, newspapers, magazines, and talk-shows. They all offer information, positions and points of view. Everyone has an opinion or outlook they want us to follow or accept.

In our faith, we look to our churches, synagogues and temples, our clergy or members for input and advice. We draw inspiration, direction or support from being part of, or hearing about, the experiences or perspectives of others. But our faiths—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, etc.—comprise wide differences in beliefs, values and tenets. The differences can be great even within denominations. One look at Christians in the U.S. shows how greatly divergent we all are.

A good example is the increasingly strident debate roiling throughout the Christian Church on homosexuality. Like the issues in To Kill A Mockingbird, there is no lack of perspectives being offered by others. These perspectives range from absolute tolerance and acceptance to absolute intolerance and condemnation: from the ordination of Bishop Gene Robinson to the Topeka church whose banner proclaims “AIDS: God’s cure for fags.” This wide range of beliefs and perspectives inexplicably comes from the same book of faith: The Bible, God’s Word. The issue has become a lightning rod, drawing our attention and resources away from other issues (poverty, hunger, disease, and the environment) and distracting us from what Christ calls us to do (love our neighbors). It’s hard to reconcile the widely divergent perspectives we hear from those who claim to be people of faith.

How do we balance being open to the insights and perspectives of others without becoming dependent and letting others guide our lives? As with any issue, we have to ask ourselves what we accept and what we pass on? How do we make this decision? How do different ideas fit with what we believe? What are we looking for? What do we want or hope to gain from this perspective? How do we use this?

It’s important for each of us to develop a healthy sense of self along with a strong set of beliefs. This sense of self, as with our beliefs and values, must be flexible enough to see, hear and digest information from another’s experience or perspective, yet strong enough to stand on its own. We need to be open to the input or experiences of others, but we also need to be able to make our own decisions without blithely following others. Our sense of self and our set of beliefs inform what we accept, reject or “consider for further study.” Renowned psychologist Jean Piaget referred to it as the processes of accommodation and assimilation: There are things that are taken in as a whole and others taken in and blended, molded and adapted to what we already believe. We need a balanced moral and spiritual compass, both accommodating and assimilating perspectives from those around us.

Today, the lessons of To Kill A Mockingbird remain fresh and meaningful. In the end, I believe that God and Christ call me to be in fellowship with others –to listen to their perspectives, to be open to hearing the voice of God or seeing the face of Christ within them, whether I agree with their ideas or not. But I also have to be confident in my set of beliefs, and my sense of what God and Christ call me to do has to remain mine.

To Kill a Mockingbird
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