On Being a Good Neighbor, and Sharing Space

My inbox, Facebook news feed, and Twitter have all been filled with references this week to the tragic shooting of three students in North Carolina who also all happen to be Muslims.  The responses have ranged from grief to astonishment, with a fair amount of confusion, anger, and religious vitriol thrown into the mix for good measure.  (For a summary of the incident, click here.)

While no one knows for sure yet whether the incident was racially/religiously motivated (and thus a hate crime), or the result  of a parking dispute that got out of hand (and thus a regular really bad crime), one thing is certain–three young people lost their lives unnecessarily, and the community of Chapel Hill has some serious introspection to undertake.  Perhaps our nation as a whole needs to do some thinking and praying about this situation, and what it might say to us about how we can be good neighbors to one another, and share the space we’ve been given on this planet in which to coexist.

Whether the students who were killed in Chapel Hill were killed because of their faith, or because of parking issues in their condo, what lies at the root of this story is the simple fact that people of different beliefs, backgrounds, and worldviews sometimes have to share space. We bump into people who are different from us every day.  You don’t even have to leave the house for that to happen most days–the people in our families and with whom we spend the most time can sometimes be the first “strangers” we ever encounter.  Each person is so unique and different in his or her own way that it is impossible for people to live side by side without some kind of conflict erupting.  Even if two saints were to live with one another, an argument would erupt eventually.  Add race, religion, and politics to the mix, and you’ve got a volatile cocktail of anger and misunderstanding before conversation and interaction can even begin.

Part of what I do for a living is understanding difference.  I work with people from a wide variety of expressions of religious faith, and a fair amount of people who do not express a religious faith at all.  Even among my own “tribe” of Christianity, there are many differences between denominations and sects, and even within denominations and sects.  Variety, that ever-present spice on the smorgasbord of life, keeps things interesting, but it can also lead to stress and conflict.  How we deal with that conflict is the key to our success in the world.

In my work, I often utilize the image of a circle to represent the individual.  Each circle (individual) has a center, and each circle has an edge.  The center represents that place or state of mind where we feel most comfortable and at home.  The edge represents the scary places, or the rough edges, which is often where growth occurs the most.  When two or more people come together, centers and edges begin to rub up against one another, causing friction.  After all, what may be my center–the very core of who I am and what makes me feel safe–may be your edge, and your center may represent my growing edge.  Rather than avoiding such situations, I believe that interaction with people who have different centers and edges is essential to growth as a human being.  And, such interaction can help us to grow spiritually.  As we grow and mature in our own spiritual lives, we become more and more tolerant and embracing of others.  That’s not to say that we necessarily have to change our beliefs or deeply held convictions when we embrace others.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite.  I find that the more I learn about others, and the closer I come to people who have different beliefs and convictions, the more firmly I am able to hold my own convictions.  It is when we are most open, most honest, and most completely who we are within our centers that we are able to interact in a compassionate and hospitable way toward those with whom we differ.

Would a touchy-feely session of spiritual direction, or a mindful encounter with “the other” have helped the situation in Chapel Hill?  Because we don’t yet know all the facts, it’s hard to say,but it certainly wouldn’t have hurt.  If we are ever to share space with one another on this big ball of land and water that we call home, we had better begin to encounter one another in ways that are more life-giving and more mindful than the ways we currently undertake.  To avoid tragedies like the one that happened at Chapel Hill, we need to be able to be open with our neighbors about who we are, what makes us unique, and what doesn’t make sense to us.  We especially need to do this if we are part of the traditional majority within the U.S., and we must find a way to be welcoming and tolerant of one another’s differences.  Peace demands it, and our survival as a planetary family depends on it.