Thursday, September 4, 2014

Understanding too Quickly

"Late Summer"
-Outside the Desert Retreat House-

Yesterday I had a conversation with a friend of mine who lives back East. He was complaining about how hot it has been over the past few weeks. "It's been pretty hot here too," I said.  Then, I suddenly realized that, while we had both agreed on uncomfortable, "too hot" late-summer temperatures, we were far from talking about the same thing. 

The average daytime summer temperature in the desert where I live stays somewhere around 112 degrees (often higher).  You can barely walk outdoors in this kind of heat. You take special care to avoid being exposed to the sun in the afternoon hours, and you have to drink water constantly throughout the day in order to "survive." As for my friend - he had to endure a few weeks of scorching 80 and 90 degree temps and sit under a shade tree if it got too hot.  So yes, we had both agreed that it had been a "hot" summer, but we were far from talking about the same thing.

My conversation yesterday reminded me of something a professor of mine used to tell me while I was in graduate school. In conversations with him I would often say, "Yes, I know exactly what you mean," and his inevitable, routine response was:

Don't understand me too quickly.

At first this may seem like odd advice. After all, "mutual understanding" is a goal we all hope to achieve in our communication with others; and in an age where there is so much conflict and division in the world, it seems even more imperative that we work toward achieving "mutual understanding." The point is is that if we understand each other too quickly, we may not understand each other at all.

After I publish my daily post on my blog, I often find myself spending a good deal of time having online conversations with people who make comments about what I have written, and so every day I engage in many conversations about "religion" and "spirituality." Almost inevitably these conversations run into trouble when people "jump to conclusions." 

People who are "religious" observe that I am an ordained priest, and when they see me using words like "religion" or "God," they assume that we are all standing on common ground, certain that they understand what I am talking about - but this is often not the case.  I use the word "God" and I mean an abiding presence, an energy of love flowing in everything that is, whereas many of my religious friends use the word "God"  to refer to an Almighty Father watching over and controlling the world. 

On the other hand, I have spoken with many atheists and agnostics who sometimes attack me and often won't even talk to me because I use words like "God" and "religion," thinking that there is no common ground between us.  Yet as we talk, we often discover that we may indeed have a "mutual understanding." While rejecting the existence of God as "the man upstairs," many atheists and agnostics agree that there is some sort of Universal Energy abiding in the cosmos, and that human beings are all drawn to the experience of "transcendence." I often find that I don't believe in the same God they don't believe in, and that together we may both be people of "faith." 

As a Professor of "Communication" I would constantly remind my students of a basic communication principle:  If you hope to achieve some degree of "mutual understanding" in dialogue with others, always look for:

differences in similarities and similarities in differences. 

As human beings we all stand on the common ground of our shared humanity. No matter how different we may seem we can always find that "common ground" somewhere between us, so look for the similarities when you see differences. Likewise, be careful not to imagine that, just because we seem similar, we think alike - when you see similarities, look for differences.

Don't understand me too quickly.



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