Stunted by Sameness
Although we all enjoy our comfort zones, growth comes
about when we open ourselves to diversity
by Lowell Grisham
A lifelong Mississippi friend of mine was
surprised to find great wisdom and peace from the teachings
of Gangaji, a former Ole Miss sorority sister whose spiritual
pilgrimage to the East has led her to a change of name and
vocation. Gangaji is an internationally known spiritual guru
and guide. My friend records Gangaji's frequent teaching conversations
on TV and is able to listen and learn almost on a daily basis.
She's discovered in Gangaji a source of great equanimity and
One day during a televised question and answer
period, a devoted follower sighed dreamily to Gangaji, "How
wonderful it must be to have 'made it.'" "Well,"
Gangaji responded, "'making it' depends upon your perspective.
Here in my hometown of Clarksdale, Mississippi, I haven't
made it at all. To make it here, I should have married a doctor
and joined the Junior League. In Clarksdale, I'm regarded
as something akin to a tent revivalist." Thousands
around the world attend to her every word, but in her hometown,
she's suspiciously odd.
Several years ago I participated in a popular
local Bible study. It is a fulfilling exercise of fellowship
and learning for several hundred men. After an opening introductory
teaching, we gathered into small groups. Each of us had studied
a passage of scripture and written our answers to some questions
about the passage. We went around the circle and shared our
answers with the small group.
Everyone else in the group had very similar
answers coming from a shared common perspective. When one
person would share his thoughts, the circle nodded with encouraging
assent. My reflections were always a little different from
the others. Maybe it was because I was the only Episcopalian
in the group. And when I shared my thoughts, I saw only blank
looks. A few in the circle seemed almost embarrassed for me.
A couple of times the leader tried to reinterpret
my answer so it would blend more comfortably with the others.
The most charitable of them thought me a bit odd.
We all have our comfortable circles. There
are places where we feel we belong and we are understood.
As the theme song from Cheers says. "Sometimes
you want to go where everybody knows your name. And they're
always glad you came." Everybody needs places of such
refuge and belonging
being comfortable with like-minded people can produce a spiritual
ghetto that at its worst can turn into mob-think.
There is something stimulated when you find yourself among
strangers, without title or standing, listening to ideas and
thoughts that come from a different and challenging perspective.
We need one another in all of our diversity.
That's a lesson we get from Jesus who crossed all kinds of
religious and cultural barriers to interact with those who
were different from him and different from each other. St.
Paul offers the image of the body. A complete humanity needs
all parts of the body. The ear can't say to the eye, "I
have no need of you."
One race cannot say to another, "I have
no need of you." One religious tradition cannot say to
another, "I have no need of you." One political
party, one nation, one economic class cannot say to another,
"I have no need of you." We need the whole. We especially
need the odd gifts and perspectives of those who differ most
from us, those who are outside of our circles of comfort.
It seems easier than ever today to live inside
a mental ghetto. We can edit our news by getting it filtered
through sympathetic web sites and specialized magazines. Neighborhoods
are more monochrome, defined by house price and fenced yards.
It's pretty easy now to be only around people like us.
I have a friend who grew up playing with the
children of his parents' church-friends, went to parochial
school, attended his denominational college, married a girl
with a similar background and works for the church. He's only
known one way to think about the world, and he's absolutely
certain that it is correct. Within his "world" he
has "made it." But he
finds himself increasingly baffled and angered by the challenges
that come from outside people who are different from him.
He wishes he could straighten them out.
But there is no venue for conversation. I
wish he could meet Gangaji. If they could get past their oddness,
if they could let go of whatever they are sure the other is
wrong about, the eye and the ear might be enlarged.
When we tune our ears to discover the values
being affirmed by those odd voices from outside our circles
of comfort, we sometimes find new wisdom and perspective.
The Victorian Anglican socialist F.D. Maurice wrote, "A
man is most often right in what he affirms and wrong in what
he denies." The next time you find yourself confronted
with a perspective that seems odd and different from your
own, consider it as an offering from another member of your
body. Welcome that odd person and ask yourself, "What
is this person affirming? What underlying value motivates
And then, consider stepping out of your own
comfortable circle to start a new conversation. After all,
saying, "I have no need of you" is not an option.
©2005 Lowell Grisham
This article first appeared in the Northwest Arkansas
Times in May 2005