It can be easy to reinforce our limited individual understanding of the world when we stay comfortable in our currently existing bubbles – but what happens when we challenge our perspectives to see through the lenses of others?
The last time that I stood at this podium and delivered a sermon was a little over 10 yearsa go. I was 17, about to graduate high school and daydreaming of college life in Boston as a new, fully formed adult.
Most importantly, I stood up here knowing, without a shred of doubt, that I understood everything there was to know about life and how the world worked. After all, I Had been around for an entire 17 years. I had lived in a few different states, been to a collection of schools, traveled a bit, had a diverse friend group and had even learned about many of the world’s religions in my UU Religious Ed! As far as I was concerned, I had seen the good, the bad, the ugly and everything in between, and I had a firm grasp on the human experience.
My particular prescription lenses were clear and correct.
So naturally a few weeks ago at our monthly worship team meeting, when there was an empty space in the calendar for December 12th that no one had volunteered for, I reaised my hand without any hesitation and signed myself up for the job. Because why not? I had done it before no problem, I love writing, I’ve got opinions for days and I’ve got a lot to say. Easy peasy.
But for the next three weeks, my brain suddenly became a barren wasteland without a single though of value or inspirational idea. Somehow, after 10 years of life experiences, I went from thinking I knew and understood everything… to realizing just how little I actually knew about anything.
I continued to wrack my brain for a topic that I would have any authority to speak on as I continued to expertly procrastinate writing.
Later that week, I found myself in a conversation about the state of the world with my dad, and we began to discuss our thoughts on the future of the housing market. For context, we’re both Real Estate Agents. He’s been in the business for about 15 years and I’m relatively new on the scene.
I said, thinking my statement was abundantly obvious, “Honestly, I think people my age and younger see little hope for ever owning a home or building a life in the way that previous generations are familiar with.” He looked at me puzzled and said, “I completely disagree! I’ve met tons of people your age who are buying houses!” I thought about this for a moment, and considered well… maybe I’m just really behind all of my peers or the company I keep is somehow subpar to all of these other people in their 20’s miraculously buying houses… but then it dawned on me, despite us working in the same field my perspective bubble was vastly different than my dad’s. It made sense that he had such an optimistic view of the Millennial/Gen X housing market because he’s been a realtor for the last 15 years and very few people come to a realtor if they are not in a position to buy a house. So every person my age that he had met in that context had been capable of buying a house. However, as someone whose peers are within that demographic and out of the context of actively being in the house buying process out of the 1500 or so people I knew, I could barely count on one hand the amount of people my age who could currently build a house.
Neither of us were technically wrong, we just had completely different perspectives on the situation.
After that conversation I began to question how many other internalized perceptions of mine might be completely different than someone else’s. And I slowly realized over the past 10 years I have had a particularly unique relationship with my understanding of perspective.
For anyone who hasn’t follows my escapades via my parents’ Facebook posts over the years, I’ve moved around a lot. Since graduating high school, I’ve moved a total of 12 times. From New England to the Midwest to the South to SoCal and most recently Northern California. Each time I moved to a new previously uncharted territory, I would spend anywhere from a month to a year recharging back here in Elgin, and each time I returned I was met with what felt like a different Elgin, but what I would learn was ultimately a different me, seeing the same place, with the different lenses I had picked up along the way.
The first time that I remember going through a major shift in perspective was shortly after I left college in Boston. I was 21 and I spontaneously made the decision to move to Nashville. I had lived there briefly as a child, but this would be my first time spending any significant time in the south. I packed my entire life into a U-Haul trailer for what would now be the 3rd time, and headed south. I made my way through southern Illinois into Indiana, and crossed through into Kentucky as the Wendy’s turned into Chick-fil-a’s and the IHOPs faded into Waffle Houses.
For context, if you had asked me at the time, I would have described myself as “fiscally conservative, but morally liberal” a phrase that now makes me shudder. I firmly believed that we lived in a country of equal opportunity and if you were not able to succeed or get ahead that was no one’s fault but your own. I of course knew that obstacles such as poverty and racism existed in the past and in far off corners of the world, but everyone has obstacles.
In my online search for a new home in Nashville I found a beautifully updated ranch with a huge backyard just 10 minutes from the heart of downtown. I was shocked to find that in a city with a rapidly booming housing market, I was able to find such an incredible property well within my budget. My new home was in East Nashville.
After getting settled I quickly started my new job. I was a server at an upscale steakhouse on Broadway, in the heart of Downtown. A few days in, I was chatting with a dishwasher about where I had moved to, and I mentioned I had just settled into East Nashville, right off Trinity Lane. He looked at me in absolute disbelief, burst into laughter and said “What’s a white girl like you doing over there?!”
Confused, I laughed it off and finished up my shift. But over the next week, I continued to receive the same reaction. Laughter and shock from my BIPOC coworkers and what I would call concerned confusion mixed with disapproval from my white coworkers. Then it hit me square in the face: I lived in the “Black” part of town, and in the South, that meant something. For the first time in my life, I began to actively see the lasting present day effects of things like redlining, segregation and flat out racism first hand. In Nashville, there was a very clear line representing where the white people lived and where the people of color lived, and even to this day, for the most part they do not mix. And I don’t think I need to explain to anyone here the blatant discrepancies in opportunities, funding, infrastructure and so many other things between the two communities.
After 21 years, I began to notice that I had resided in a very blue, and a very privileged bubble. A tiny pocket of reality snuggled within a much vaster unknown that I had failed to see before. My entire life I had lived in relatively progressive areas, and was raised by a very liberal village so my understanding of the world was seen through that lens. Because I had no other perspective, I thought that was also what everyone else saw. The second I physically removed myself from that bubble, it became clear that the way I had viewed reality was not correct. And I questioned “how could I have completely missed the reality of so many people?”
Fast forward 2 years to 2016, and I’m now a blue-haired, tattooed, radically left social justice warrior and in enters Donald Trump. Over the course of that year, I found myself in more volatile online political debates than could possibly be healthy for any one person and the brunt of my efforts tended to be directed at my extended family from rural PA. I had always been aware that they were far more conservative than my immediate family, but as I’m sure many of us are familiar with, the true scope of it came to life through this specific election. I remember spending years of my life desperately trying to understand how they didn’t see the harm they were doing, how people who I knew were kind and loving were suddenly okay with endorsing the level of cruelty that Trump and the Republican party facilitated.
Only recently, and with a lot of hesitation, was I willing to entertain the idea of truly trying to see things from their perspective. And I’ve realized that due to their lenses, they have a completely different understanding of this country. Their small town of 942 people nestled in the Appalachian Mountains did not actively deal with large scale human rights topics like the major cities I’ve always lived in. They didn’t ever see firsthand the detrimental effects of systemic racism because quite honestly, only white people lived there and they had never experienced it. They didn’t see the relevance of fighting for LGBTQIA rights because hardly any of them even knew a member of the queer community. They didn’t understand the housing crisis or the flaws in our immigration system or a million other issues that seemed so obviously forefront for me because they had literally no experience with them. What they did see was a once thriving community that now was experiencing a per capita income of just over $13,000 a year that they felt like the country had left behind. And only one party paid their concerns any interest… and it certainly was not the Democrats.
And with that it became clear that if I was truly going to make an effort to understand the world from others perspective, it couldn’t just be the ones that I was comfortable with. I was going to have to challenge myself to have compassion and understanding even for people that I radically did not see eye to eye with. Because as Brene Brown mentioned, the lens they see the world through is just as real and honest and truthful to them as mine is to me.
And to my dismay, no amount of expertly crafted novel length arguments in a Facebook comment section is going to miraculously convince someone to throw away their existing lenses. However, listening to them and understanding their perspective creates the potential to open up to a mutual space for constructive conversation, problem solving, and ultimately growth.
It is much easier for us to stay comfortable in our bubbles. It’s easy to find evidence for things you already believe to be true. It’s easy to internally reinforce your own perspectives as truth. And it’s easy to discount the experiences of others when they don’t align with your understanding of the world.
But in order to more deeply understand the world around you and gain empathy for your neighbors, you have to actively choose to challenge your perspectives. Because when it comes down to it, I think we’ll find that most of us all want the same things, but if we’re all so wrapped up in our own realities and are unwilling to listen to the experiences of others, we’ll waste the rest of our lives fighting instead of reaching across the table, understanding, and working together to achieve those things.
Now clearly, I’ve chosen a radical approach to challenge my perspectives that isn’t accessible or even desirable to most people. I’m fully aware that the average person is most likely not going to spend their lives moving to a different corner of the country every two years. And while I encourage everyone to do so when possible, physically walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is certainly not the only way to broaden your perspective.
So with that I challenge you, in your daily life moving forward, to be open to listening to and believing the stories and experiences of others. Especially when it’s difficult and especially when you don’t want to. And while it can be an extremely challenging ask, specifically when the other side doesn’t seem to be making the same effort, I’ve found that making the effort to do so for myself has always been worth it.