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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 perspective.

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

But 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 this person?"

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


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