Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
July 2015 - Volume 15, No. 7
Right Thinking or Real People
I was attending a party with friends - a group that has gathered a few odd times annually now for a number of years. There’s a pretty solid core, including myself, but new people will join us and some will move on. It’s easy company, and egos are generally unnecessary. If we need a common theme it seems to be a love of music.
On this occasion I met a new gentleman, who introduced himself as Theo. He was already known to a few of the others, and appeared comfortable in our fellowship. However, I hadn’t yet singled him out for conversation. I also noted a slight far european accent.
When dinner was ready (what I would best call an ‘organized pot luck’) I made my full-plate way to sit at the main dining table of the house. While others made their way to various sit-down-and-eat locations, there were probably eight of us, with this ‘new man’ Theo seated on my left.
The conversation, as was usual, was varied and vigorous, then somehow it turned to the topic of religious belief, and Theo slowly involved himself with increasing vigor. Many at the table were active church-goers, often musicians singing or involved in various church music programs. The gist of his arguments were generally anti-theist, and he presented well thought-out arguments. The group listened, and asked a number of questions, and commenting generally from their own religious frames of reference. The general spirit was of courtesy and curiosity.
Now keep in mind that I, with my two major professions, am acutely aware that both of them have a potential to ruin a party. Watch what happens when I’m introduced as a clergyman, or as a psychotherapist. Many will quickly check their conversation, as if I am either a super-moralist or a psychological intruder (i.e. can read their minds). Imagine having a marriage counselor listening in on your social conversations. One way they manage their anxiety is to become ‘interested’ in what I am thinking.
So having somewhat long-suffered this awkwardness, I’m prone to keep pretty quiet when religious or theological subjects emerge in social situations. And in terms of psychology - I don’t relish ‘working’ when I’m partying. Theo was unaware of any of this on my part, and with the apparent support of the table, ventured forth more and more with his own religious and spiritual conclusions.
I also noted that with each of his religions thought-offerings, he would preface himself with an apology that he wished to offend no-one with his thinking. The rest of the table, gracious people that they were, would assure him that no offense was taken - even though many of his thoughts and conclusions were out of harmony with much of their standard orthodoxy.
In my silence I was bothered by something else, but couldn’t put my finger on just what it was. At the same time many of my table-mates, seeking to sort out his conversation, would turn to me to ask “What do you think, Bill?” I had apparently become the local expert, sitting silently, perhaps with the key to right thinking on these issues.
This was one of those gatherings, where if somebody asks you a question, and you hesitate longer than 5 seconds in answering, someone else will have already picked up the conversation and moved on with it. So even though frequently asked, I could easily avoid speaking.
Folks began to inquire more about his background, and he became more willing to share it. What I recall most vividly was that in his youth, he had with great difficulty escaped the brutal Soviet occupation of his native Hungary in the Fall of 1956 - the news of which I also recall from my awakening high school years spent in the American heartland. And over time he had variously made his way to the United States. Also somewhere within or before these struggles he had become an orphan.
Shortly thereafter, the population of the table began to shift toward other places - perhaps in response to dessert options, and the energy of the conversation rapidly dissipated. But still I was ‘worried’ by a sense of something going on here that begged my attention.
Then it finally came to me.
The meaning of the various beliefs and conclusions Theo had gathered through his life, and were here sharing with some new friends, were not a matter of right or wrong religious thinking. The religious beliefs and conclusions he was sharing with us were rather icons of the numerous struggles of his life.
That gave me a much more comfortable way to listen to him, and to identify the greater integrity of his accounts and of himself. This was so much better than debate and argument. I was relieved that he now becomes a much more real person to me - though was sad I had lost my opportunity to share this with the larger table.
I approached him privately before the end of the party, and said to him how much I enjoyed listening to him share his beliefs with us. I also shared that I understood them, not in terms of whether they were right or wrong, or even a matter of offending others - but as an outcome of the fuller story of his life. For this I wanted to thank him.
He looked at me. Silently for a moment, seemed to betray a slight smile, and then moved on.
I don’t know if he knows who I am, but I’m more aware who he is. And now I know more fully who I am.
Oh if we could all accomplish this!
“Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.”
~~ Rumi (13th-century Persian poet)
[This is part of my daughter Heather’s standard email signature.]
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