Many commentators of contemporary American culture have suggested that this nation is quickly becoming less a civilized society and more an aggregate of isolated “rugged individuals” who live together in one place. Each individual has his or her own agenda in life – the goal is self-fulfillment and personal gratification.
The interesting thing about this “aggregate of rugged individualists” is that, on the surface, people who live in such a culture may only appear to be living in community with one another but in fact they only associate with like-minded others, often for safety and security or personal gain. When people solely “hang out” with others who think alike, look alike and speak alike it’s like “hanging out” with a reflection of your own ego-self.
When I observe everyday life in America today I think there is some truth to this analysis. More and more we are a nation of people composed of small groups of like-minded others.
I watch TV and observe political rallies of ‘Trump supporters” and everybody looks alike, they even sound like one another. I see pictures of “Black Lives Matter” marches on city streets and everybody looks like everybody else. Some people only watch FOX news, others only MSNBC. Many people want to send foreigners back home.
I even notice this tendency to only associate with like-minded others when I browse the social media. There are all sorts of online “communities” for people to talk with one another, but for the most part these many venues are mostly composed of people who are all similar to one another- atheists hang out with other atheists, evangelicals with other conservative Christians, Buddhists with fellow Buddhists. Rarely is there dialogue among different people, just a lot of name-calling. This cultural trend is not only narcissistic, it makes life bland, dull and boring, like only eating white bread or being forced to survive on a bland diet that makes no use of spices.
Besides this, “hanging out” only with people who are similar is a sure formula for suppressing the kind of deeper truth that can only emerge in diversity – greater wisdom is a product of the dialogue between different and even opposing perspectives.
I think I learned this lesson about the importance of diversity when we moved to Los Angeles over ten years ago. Before moving to the west coast we lived in pretty standard middle class suburbs in the northeastern part of this country– it was pretty much a “white bread” existence, a rather bland diet of everyday living. At the supermarket, in the neighborhood, at church - for the most part everyone I associated with looked and thought and spoke pretty much like me. Then we moved out West, and in an instant everything changed.
When we first arrived in L.A. I must admit that it was so “different” that it put me off guard and initially was even somewhat frightening to me. As I walked the neighborhood streets I realized that English was not the primary language being spoken –Spanish, Korean, Hebrew, Chinese and many other languages I didn’t even recognize filled the air. I could sit at an outdoor table at a local coffee shop and watch as Hasidic Jews passed by dressed in their long coats and fur hats followed by blonde-haired surfer dudes with their skateboards and veiled women covered in Burkas.
The church I served in L.A. was a perfect icon of this new diversity into which I had been submerged. Every Sunday, I would look out into the congregation and instead of seeing people who looked pretty much like me I saw people who for the most part who looked very different from me: Asians, Africans dressed in the garb of the native land, Latinos, African Americans and Caucasians, Gay people and Straight people, young people and old people, some very rich, others extremely poor.
After a few years of living in L.A. and serving at that church, I not only became comfortable with all that diversity, I welcomed it, I even needed it - a necessary element of a deeper and richer spiritual life. When I would look into the many faces of all those many different people I was no longer looking at my own reflection; instead I was looking at the face of “God”
Episcopal priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor, makes this observation:
The supreme challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image,
for only then can we see past our own reflection in the mirror
to the God who we did not make up.
So much of life today is like living in a “House of Mirrors.” In order to see the truth we must see past our own refection.