I’ve been thinking a lot about Laura’s most recent post and how much I appreciate the open, thoughtful, relational and respectful way we were raised. I also realized that the spirit behind her post has been one of the strongest driving factors in my life. It has forced me to reframe life. It has made me face my assumptions about things, actions and people that I feel are common, awful or ridiculous. I’ve been forced to recognize the humanity in things with which I disagree, and even possibly see the more fabulous, beautiful or rational side I may never have considered.
I call it “The Perilous ‘I could never…’.”
Never criticized for being a pushover, I was a definitive child. My world, as it is for most kids, was black and white, filtered through my limited experience. I could not, for the life of me, understand how people could do things differently than I would. “Well, they did that, but I could never [fill in the blank].” Over the past 3 decades, I accumulated quite the list of “could nevers,” including:
- live in a big city
- homeschool my kids
- live in a neighborhood where all the houses are the same
- live on the east coast
- eat gluten-free
- eat a vegan diet
- tell my kids to ‘shut up’
- have a pet cat
- buy organic food
- drink unpasteurized milk
- wear bell bottoms
- wear jeggings
- pay more attention to my kids than my husband
- co-sleep with my baby
- breastfeed for longer than a year
- give my baby a pacifier
- let my kid watch TV for more than an hour a day
- enjoy country music
- live somewhere without four seasons
- own a smartphone
- communicate via texting
- use Instagram
- own a Mac
- be a runner
Of course, I have done every single thing on that list at one time or another. Apparently, my dad is also keeping a list of all the things I said I could never do and have subsequently done. I’m a little nervous to see it.
As should happen as we mature, I gradually started seeing other experiences, other perspectives that shaped why people made particular choices. I have had to systematically face nearly all of my “could nevers.” Sometimes I abandonded my “could nevers” because I discovered I was stupidly naïve or stupidly stubborn. Sometimes I have faced my “could nevers” through situations that were a little too coincidental. Sometimes I faced them going through excruciatingly painful experiences, or being pushed to the limits of what I could handle. In fact, over the course of my life, some of the biggest, best, most painful, most horrific, most foundational, or most instrumental experiences have made me face these assumptions. I have had to see life through a different lens. Through these experiences, I have done my “could nevers” or have realized how someone could do all of those things I said I could never do.
I shared with you the innocuous list. But there have always been some pretty inflammatory topics nestled in my “could nevers,” too. One thing I have learned is that my controversial “I could nevers” were almost always born out of judgemental assumptions based on a very limited, ridiculously sheltered and easy life. It is pretty easy to say, “I could never,” to so many things given the life I have, the parents I have, the opportunities I have and the talents and skills I have.
If you know me (or happen to be married to me), you know that I think strong convictions are important. I think being able to search out, find, believe in and act on universal truth is essential. However, one of the most important things I have realized that being able to truly understand how someone could make a decision is vital, even if I maintain the belief that their decision was bad, wrong, harmful or destructive. Taking the time to listen and try to understanding someone, even if you disagree with them, even if it’s uncomfortable and painful and inconvenient, is necessary for compassion, relationship and love. Refusing to let myself enter into the circumstances that lead people to their beliefs, decisions, and actions makes me mistrusting, judgmental and angry.
My junior year of high school, I had to read my first science fiction book, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, for my American Studies class. Knowing that “I could never read science fiction,” I resigned myself to just getting it done. But, (surprise!) it became my favorite book of all time. And, ironically, the theme is that when you truly, deeply understand someone, there can no longer be hate. You may not agree, you may never be friends, you may still have different goals that conflict. But when you move beyond the actions to the motivations and can see why and how and who they are, you can extend compassion, love and grace. I had to learn the hard way that one of the best ways to destroy a potential relationship is to enter with the attitude of, “well, I could never…”.
As is evidenced by the irritatingly enlightening string of events in my life, God has clearly asked me to stop making assumptions, and instead take the time to truly try to understand situations, people and decisions. Sometimes I am asked to walk a mile (or many) in their shoes. I have learned that true compassion does not require dismissing moral absolutes or values, it is choosing to understand the how behind the why, to love anyway, and most often to just shut up and listen. It is a challenging but necessary lifestyle and mindset change for me. God knows the worst about me, not just the bad stuff I do, but the good stuff I do for the most selfish reasons. Yet, he understands me, and loves me the same. He makes the distinction between the action and the heart behind. I owe it to others to do the same.
I am a huge hypocrite. I know there are still lots of parasitic “could nevers” leeching away my compassion. And, darn it, I keep discovering more “could nevers” all the time. I also know that I always have a choice to dig in, shut down and refuse to entertain another perspective. I’m working on choosing to be brave enough to let God reveal my assumptions and address them in truth and love. It’s been a slow and painful process.
So what “could nevers” am I working on now? At the risk of offending nearly everyone I know, four of my more ridiculous “I could nevers” still hover out there in my stubborn, judgmental ether – I could never own a house bigger than our current house, drive a minivan, run for political office or live in North Dakota. I pray that I can figure out how anyone could before I have to find out the hard way. 😉