I am going to tell you a story that happened to me two years ago, in Austria – not much of anything, just something I was thinking of today. A few of my readers might even recognize the context. I really do recall it as I will say, and yet it’s a parable. Because I call it to mind when I need a reminder of this particular lesson.
In the summer of 2010, I attended a Christian-Muslim interreligious dialogue at the Altenburg Abbey. Three weeks among the emerald hills of Lower Austria, country roads brushed by tiny nodding bells that smell like home. Baroque, elaborate halls and the cathedral so overpowering that neither the eye nor the soul can take all of it in and must find some one thing to rest upon, one at a time. Underground, 11th c. Gothic stone, excavated by the monks back to the roots of the monastery, breathing cool and the ages. 46 people, mostly young, from 17 countries all over the globe. Full days of seminars on Christianity, Islam, and International Law. Three weeks of hectic days, din and song, day trips and weekend trips, Vienna, talent show, breakfasts and dinners, ice cream and the woods, cooking together, taking pictures, arguments, fledgling friendships…
July 2010. It was a wonderful time. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done, and the heart I brought home with me was much fuller of people than the one I had carried to Austria.
But it was not always an easy time.
Such we humans are – there is no disputing it. We are of unique shapes. Put a few of us together, and rough edges will begin to grate against each other. Especially when we come from so many different cultures. Especially when we are of two major religions with a history of conflict. Especially when we’ve come together to talk about it.
I could hear the grating of rough edges, some in the form of passionate disagreement on religion or on state policy, some in the form of pure, unadulterated prejudice. Prejudice was pervasive and mostly non-violent, often expressed in such pure-hearted and open way, taken so much for granted that on occasion I could not help but drop my hands and smile – prejudice against atheists, against Jews, against Mormons… And although it certainly did not come from everyone and was never directed personally at me, as a Jew and an atheist ally at times I felt I was walking a very thin, very tight rope. And that rope was suspended over the wide, rolling sea of anti-American sentiment.
“U.S.-bashing” has become something of a pastime in much of the world, in some parts of it more than in others, and honestly I cannot say I blame them. If we have begun to “bash” ourselves on the inside, can we expect the people on the outside not to? After all, they have the courtside seats to the damage we are doing, and their view is not moderated by our love for America and our understanding of our motivations and of our own internal complexities. They have the “outsider view.” We would do well to listen.
The problem, of course, arises when my beloved outsiders reduce my beloved country to a flat cut-out with no depth, when they oversimplify, overgeneralize, and do what outsiders tend to do: get it wrong. Because their view is not moderated by an understanding of our motivations and our internal complexities. Much like what happens when we “bash” Iran or North Korea or Russia or when we ever reduce millions of people to any sort of monolith and call it “evil.”
Do you know how habitual and yet still bizarre it is for me to keep finding myself in the middle of mutual bashing between America and Russia?
Anyway, back to my story. This was, I think, more than a week into our time at Altenburg – not very long but long enough for emotional tension to have begun to accumulate within me. Just after the trip to Vienna. I’d already heard some U.S.-bashing and overheard some more, I’d already wondered if I’d provoked it by being critical of America myself, I’d already made a few attempts at explaining the nuances of situations that were being simplified, and I’d already doubted I should have come among this particular crowd and then decided that hiding away behind my borders would do no one any good. And then the lecturer of the day made the move that overflowed my proverbial cup.
It was a casual, throw-away sentence – not an uncommon thing with prejudice. He simply used a generic, undifferentiated American as an indisputable example of arrogance and ignorance. That’s simply what an American is: arrogant and ignorant. By default. By definition.
It was not about our struggling education system. It was not in the context of statistics on literacy or self-esteem. It had nothing to do with anything – it was just a pat, generic statement, as unjustified and useless as any prejudice and as utterly devoid of any insight or value to the audience. Except an apparent and tacit agreement wafting over the classroom.
I felt suddenly overwhelmed and had to step out, and, once outside the classroom, burst into tears and couldn’t stop. I was sobbing and looking for a corner to hide my face and to be alone with Jesus – but everywhere I went there were tourists, and I felt hunted and on display, and I just leaned against a wall ready to abandon myself to a moment of loneliness, but this was not to be. She was late for class – one of our Austrian participants – and saw me standing there. I can only imagine how I looked: a red-faced woman with tears falling off her chin, 38 years old, weeping like a child. She didn’t even ask what was wrong but, as if she knew exactly what I needed, hugged me and pointed round the corner and down a spiral stairwell. And I went.
There was a small excavated chapel there, underground. Out of the way. Low, thick stone arches and icons. Unlit candles. Completely quiet and empty. Over the altar, the face of Jesus waited in infinite patience and calm through the centuries for me to rest my knees before it on the stone floor. And I looked up at it and through it, through the stone at Him, and cried and talked. Then he smiled. And I smiled and knew for sure I was not alone anywhere I went. Not even underground. Not even in the crowd. And I knew that shrugging off small things that people say was a small burden. A very small burden. Especially when I could understand why people said them.
I spent maybe 20 or 30 minutes in the chapel, on the dusty stone floor. Once or twice I heard tourists come down the stairs behind my back, and I heard them shuffle back up. I heard no voices. Then I went back to the seminar, my grief gone, with a light heart, ever more sure about why I was there.
Learning comes with a price, but it is worth it. The price I paid that summer was very small for the reward I received. For how much I learned. For all the people I now love. It was a great exercise for me, too – for dialogue is listening first, talking second, and I am a teacher: my job is to talk first. Two years ago I got a dose of listening concentrated enough to realize more than intellectually but on a “gut” level: when I listen, I won’t like some of what I hear, yet I cannot tune it out. I must hear it, then decide if it has value to me. If it merits a response. If it merits a change. If it affects my relationship with the person who said it.
I must listen first. But even if it hurts, I will never be alone with it.