Tiny Bubbles

A few years ago, I passed a young woman and her dog on the sidewalk and the dog jumped up on me to say hello.  The young woman apologized, saying she had just begun to foster the dog for a rescue group and hadn’t had a chance to teach it any manners yet.  I told her it was fine, that I was a “dog person” myself and didn’t mind an enthusiastic greeting from a friendly dog.  She laughed and answered, “All my friends are dog people.  I wouldn’t be friends with anyone who wasn’t.”  I smiled politely and went on my way, but her words stuck with me.

IMG_1432I love dogs and spend a lot of time in their company, one way or another.  I share my home with a dog and I walk shelter dogs in my spare time.  Many of my good friends are dog lovers, and several of them also volunteer at the local animal shelter.  But I have other friends who aren’t especially fond of dogs.  I may believe that a house isn’t truly a home until there’s a dog (or two) wandering around, but I have good friends who wouldn’t dream of sharing their home with a dog.  And you know what?  I am just as close to them as I am to my dog friends.

I believe it has become far too easy these days to associate only with people who we believe are, if not exactly like us, then at least close enough to be comfortable.  We can watch news channels that will always reflect our political views, interact on social media only with those who share our opinions, and live in neighborhoods where most people not only look like us, but are probably also in the same income-bracket.  I can’t speak for other religions, but some Christian churches have even begun to align themselves with either conservative or liberal stances based on the sincere belief that not only was Jesus political, but that his politics were exactly the same as theirs.  The division of “us” and “them” seems to be growing wider by the day.

Personally, I don’t think all this “sticking with our own kind” is a good thing at all.  When we surround ourselves with people who think, look or act mostly the way we do, we are rarely challenged with the idea that perhaps our way isn’t always the right way.  When we know that the responses to our opinions will usually be agreement, it’s all too easy to believe that our opinions are actually facts.  And if we do this long enough, then it’s easy to forget altogether that there are good people out there who just happen to look at things a tad differently than we do.

It’s easy to live in our own little bubbles, secure in the knowledge that we are right and morally superior to those whose views don’t match ours, and there are times when I’m really tempted to do that.  But ultimately, it’s not the way I want to live.

I want to live in the real world, which is populated by people who see things in their own unique way.  I want to be in relationship with people who don’t always share my political and religious views because they challenge me to examine just exactly why I believe what I do.  I want to have friends who don’t share all my interests, but are willing to tell me about theirs.  Mostly, I want to continue to learn and grow as a person.  And I don’t think that can happen when I can’t find the courage to burst out of my own little bubble.

Just Listen

I am fully aware that I talk too much.  I tend to over-explain things, repeating myself as if I don’t trust people to understand what I meant the first time I said it.  When I’m nervous, my go-to response is usually to babble on and on about nothing at all, until the person I’m talking to decides that I’m a complete idiot.  Even worse, when someone tells me about a problem, I barely wait until they stop talking before I start telling them exactly what they should do, completely ignoring the fact that they didn’t actually ask for my advice.  So believe me, I understand how much easier it is to talk than it is to listen.

It’s not that talking itself is such a bad thing.  We all have important information to share, and we all want our stories and opinions to be heard.  Sharing our thoughts and feelings allows other people to get to know who we really are, and it’s an essential part of forming the relationships that all people need.  But all that talking doesn’t do a bit of good if there isn’t anyone who is actually listening.

I don’t know about you, but I hate it when I realize that someone isn’t listening to what I’m trying to say to them.  It makes me feel dismissed when someone interrupts a story I’m telling to launch into one of their own.  And it makes me feel diminished when I share something that I think is important and the other person just says, “Uh-huh,” and then brings up a completely different subject.  Nothing says “I don’t care what you have to say,” or even “I don’t care about you,” more effectively than not bothering to listen to someone.  Those kind of conversations don’t exactly build healthy relationships.

Which is what I need to remember the next time someone is talking to me.  Am I giving that person my full attention, and really trying to understand what he or she is saying to me?  Am I bothering to ask a question if I need to in order to make sure I get what they are talking about?  When our conversation is over, will that person feel as if he or she was truly heard?  Or will they feel the way so many of us do these days:  that it would have been just as effective to talk to a brick wall?

I think that talking will always come more naturally to me that listening, but listening has far better results.  Actually, it’s kind of amazing how much I can learn when I shut up and listen for a change.  I get genuine insights into how someone else thinks and feels, and a chance to develop deeper relationships with my friends and family.  I hear new facts and different ideas, and they broaden my horizons considerably.  (Also, the odds of me saying something stupid go way down when I’m not actually talking.)  The perks of listening are bountiful indeed.

I have come to believe that there’s a lot of truth in that old saying, “God gave us two ears and only one mouth for a reason.”  Because one way or another, it is almost always better to listen than to talk.

Get Closer

When I was pregnant with my first child, I was heading to lunch with a work friend when I tripped at the top of a set of very tall and very steep concrete steps.  I tried to grab the railing to catch myself, but it was too far away.  Luckily, my friend was strong and had good reflexes, because he shot out his arm to block my fall, and then steadied me with his other hand.  If it hadn’t been for him, I would have fallen all the way down those stairs and ended up in a broken heap on the asphalt parking lot many feet below.  I was still shaken when we reached the restaurant, and apparently, so was my friend, because the first thing he did was order a stiff drink.  I noticed his hand was trembling slightly when he lifted the glass.  There’s no doubt in my mind that he saved my baby’s life.

Aside from our work life, my friend and I had very little in common.  He was single and still living with his parents while I was married and living in my own house.  He had never left the St. Louis area, whereas I had only recently returned to it.  He was gay; I was straight.  I was an avid animal lover, yet when I asked him to sign my anti-vivisection petition, he politely declined, saying he saw nothing wrong with experimenting on animals if it had the potential to help humans.  I could go on, but you get the idea. We were two very different people, and yet we worked together quite well and found it easy to be friends.

And this story is just one example of the many times my life has been enriched by people who are very different from me.  I am white, but the woman whose encouragement gave me the most confidence to write for children is black.  I think deer are among the most beautiful creatures on this earth, but I have friends and relatives who hunt.  I love to read, am terrible at sports and have unbelievably bad math skills, yet the man I married rarely reads, went to college on a sports scholarship and makes his living as an accountant.  And I couldn’t imagine life without him.

I know the current trend is increasingly to “stick with our own kind,” and have nothing to do with those who have different values, different cultures and different beliefs, but I honestly think it is a horrible one.  Sure, we can watch only news shows that reflect our opinions, and we can rage against those who think (and, worst of all vote) differently than we do, and we can “unfriend” all the people on Facebook whose posts we disagree with.  But if we do, the loss is our own.

So many people are worth knowing, if we are brave enough to give them a chance.  When we get close to people who seem different, we often find they have some wonderful qualities mixed in there with the stuff that puts us off.   l don’t know about you, but I have good friends  who voted for Clinton, and I have good friends who voted for Trump.  I didn’t vote for either of those candidates, but you know what?  I still value my friends who did more than words can say.

And whenever I do feel the temptation to “stick with my own kind,” all I have to do is remember my friend and coworker from all those years ago.  Because if I hadn’t gotten to know him, he wouldn’t have been with me on those steps.  And I might not have a daughter at all.martha-at-xmas

Missed Connections

Heather and II have to admit that I have a love/hate relationship with social media.  On the one hand, I have reconnected with many old friends since I joined Facebook several years ago, and I love seeing what people I haven’t talked to in decades are doing these days.  It’s great to get to catch up with old friends, to share memories, and to see photos of their families.  I no longer have to worry about forgetting most people’s birthdays, because Facebook is always there to remind me.  I have friends who brag about not being on Facebook, and while I understand why they choose not to participate, I sometimes wonder if they really know what they are missing.

On the other hand, I am still an introvert who needs a certain level of privacy to feel comfortable, and I’m not exactly a master of new technology.  I have a Facebook page, but I don’t have a Twitter account, and I’m not even sure what Instagram is.  In the huge pool of social media, I am definitely staying in the shallow water.

But the real problem I have with social media is with its limitations, and I worry about whether we always remember that a Facebook friend is not the same thing as a real friend, and that a “tweet” will never be a substitute for a real conversation.  On social media, we post about what we are doing, where we are, who we are with, and (oddly enough) even what we are eating.  We share photos of our family and friends, our vacations, or a project that we’ve completed, and that’s all just fine.  But the one thing that I have never seen posted (and I would bet that it’s rarely, if ever, tweeted) is the simple question, “How are you doing?”

And that, to my mind, is the difference between friendship and communication in social media, and friendship and communication in real life.  Social media is all about   showcasing ourselves, and usually in the best possible light.  Real-life friendships require true connections, with the chance to tell each other the hard stuff…our self-doubts, our struggles, our not-so-broadcastable moments.  Real communication involves listening as well as talking, with an honest and open exchange of ideas, and the chance to learn from each other.  Most of the back and forth exchanges I see on Facebook involve hateful arguments about politics and religion, and I never see any evidence that the people writing those comments are actually listening to each other, much less caring about each other.

I think that social media is, by its very nature, usually a bit superficial, and that’s okay.  There’s nothing wrong with the casual connections we form there, the chance to catch up with faraway friends, and the chance to quickly and easily keep track of each other.  And sometimes social media is used to tell bad news and to request the prayers and support that help so much during these dark times.   But it will never be a substitute for one-on-one communication, or the real friendships and the deeper, more personal relationships that we all need, and I think it’s important that we remember that.

In the real world, the quality of the friendship matters so much more than the numbers of friends we have, and real communication is never like a Facebook post that is judged by how many “likes” it gets.  Social media definitely has its place, but in my opinion, it also needs to be kept in its place.  And that place should never be center stage.