I didn't know I needed glasses until I was a junior in high school. The girl who sat next to me in choir got new frames, and I asked if I could try them on. I expected the world to blur, as it did when I put on my mom's glasses. To my shock, this particular day during fifth bell, something different happened. I donned the lenses, and my quality of vision improved immediately. I lifted my eyes to the clock, high up on the wall, and it looked surprisingly crisp and clean. The black color of the numbers and ticking hands stood out sharply against the bright white of the face in a way I'd never seen. The clarity seemed almost miraculous.
Amused, I slipped the glasses off, and the world around me turned dull and a bit cloudy. I put the glasses back on, and, it happened again. Fuzzy outlines morphed into distinct, well-defined shapes, and the hues in the scene instantly pulsed with new vibrancy.
I couldn't believe it. I'd been walking around all this time thinking I could see just fine. Not until I borrowed the glasses of the girl sitting next to me did I stop to consider that my perspective might be missing something.
Isn't this true in our lives? Most of us are attached to our way of seeing the world. Like my younger self, we might never have a reason to question the clarity of our vision. We see how we see, and that's that. We're convinced we have all the pieces to the puzzle. That becomes more evident during election season, especially an election season as volatile, troubling, and divisive as this one. Heightened public discourse reveals us clinging to our limited perspectives and long-held but often unexamined beliefs. It would appear from our Facebook feeds that just about everybody is an expert on just about everything. I sense it in myself. I'd like to believe that I am open-minded, but when it comes right down to it, I have a defensive grip around my views. There is pride in that grip, and there's definitely fear. Neither of those is helpful in the healing of our world.
The Archdiocese of Cincinnati, where I minister, has launched a non-partisan campaign in hopes to foster a more productive, loving kind of discourse during this election season. The movement is called Civilize It '16, and it invites each of us to pledge three things: civility, clarity and compassion. The call for clarity speaks to our tendency to cling to our beliefs. It gets at the need for each of us to "have our vision checked." What could that require?
1 - I must be willing to evaluate my perspective honestly.
In a senior religion class project, our teacher assigned us a new identity and instructed us to try to get a job using that identity. My friend Clare and I were partners in the endeavor, and our new identity involved poverty, family tragedy and homelessness. Sitting at her kitchen table, we realized that the first two lines on every job application asked for "our" address and telephone number, neither of which "we" had. And that was just the first hurdle. One afternoon of attempting to get a job as our new identity was futile and disheartening.
Up until that point, I had heard it said frequently that the poor are lazy. "Get a job" seemed like a logical demand upon someone trying to rise from poverty. In my world, there was a framework in place that made getting a job natural. Even at 16, through no effort of my own, I had an address and phone number, a car to drive to work, nice clothes to wear to an interview, a high-quality education, and parents who had shown me through teaching and example what responsibility looks like. Ironically, in our school project identity, "we" needed a job so that we could work toward those things, but we couldn’t even think about getting a job until we had them.
If we take a closer look at some of our hardline perspectives, we might realize that they are not founded at all. They may come from my upbringing, or they may be so widely accepted in my social circle that I've never had a reason to doubt them. If we want clarity, it is important that we question ourselves: Why do I believe what I believe? How did I come to believe that? Who taught me Where did I read about it or study it? Do I have experience that gives me expertise on this topic? If I don't have personal experience, do I have relationships and conversations that could inform me? What emotions do I have attached to this particular issue? Where do they come from? How might my perspective be limited?
2 - I must be willing to 'borrow others' glasses; and to accept new glasses when they're handed to me.
I'll never forget being in Spanish class the week that Timothy Thomas was shot in Cincinnati. Our teacher invited us to dialogue about the incident. For some reason, even though I was a white, middle-class girl from the suburbs, who only had driven through Over-the-Rhine, the neighborhood where the shooting happened, I felt like I had something to say. I shared my ignorant, regurgitated viewpoint brazenly. Then, I noticed two of my classmates shaking their heads. These young women were black, and they lived in Over-the-Rhine. They took a bus home there every day, they slept there, woke up there, studied there, played there. Their family and friends were there. When they began to share their experience, I felt myself shrinking in my chair. What made me think I knew their reality?
If we want clarity, we must be willing to open ourselves to others' perspectives. When we talk with people, do we really listen to where they're coming from? We are called to approach others' stories with humility. Do we attempt to converse with those who know, or those who will simply reinforce our limited views? When we read, do we read reliable sources, and read broadly? We would do well to stop pretending we are experts on topics for which we are not. We need to be learners.
3 - I must be willing to intentionally step out of my comfort zone.
The week that I moved to Ecuador as a volunteer at age 22, the exiting volunteers led us through an orientation. After the first day of riding buses to learn routes, we were walked down the dusty road back to the volunteer house. The gum I had popped in my mouth on the bus ride was shriveling, so I plucked it out and moved toward one of the trash cans on the side of the road. One of the exiting volunteers stopped me, and instructed me to look inside the bin where I was about to toss my gum. I saw that it was half-full of water. I looked down the street, and I noticed that each tiny house had a similar barrel out on the curb. This was where the water trucks stopped to fill up the bins with water that the families would use for drinking, bathing, cooking, cleaning, you name it. And so, I was jolted awake. My two-year transformational education began.
If I am white, and I only hang out with white people, my vision is limited. If I am middle class and only talk to other middle-class folk, my vision is limited. If I am from Ohio and most all of my life experience comes from being in Ohio, my vision is limited. It's a big world out there! If I want to see, I must make it a point to cross all the proverbial "lines" – color, religion, socioeconomic, cultural, and more. I must ask questions. I must seek out situations that stretch me. If I never choose to do that, I must be willing to admit that my worldview is far from complete.
4 - I must be willing to pray.
It has been said that prayer isn't meant to change things; it is meant to change us. I'm not talking about reciting rote prayers or rambling off a list of requests. I'm talking about dropping into the silence of my heart where God can encounter me. When I pray this way, I find love, compassion, unity, forgiveness and patience. I also find challenge: I come face to face with my own weaknesses and shortcomings, held in the Holy One's embrace. When I pray, I know my connectedness to all of Creation. When I pray, I am transformed, and I grow to see things ever more clearly. My prayer flows out into my life. If we are open enough to let it happen, God can surprise us out of our complacency and remind us of our limited perspective, like my discovery in fifth-bell choir.
5 - I must be willing to act.
I'm not advocating for us to be silent. Sometimes, we are the ones that need to share the sound expertise or the reliable experience. Sometimes, we are called to invite someone else to try on a new pair of glasses. But, if that is our only mode of operation, we are missing something
I'm also not advocating for us to sit around and wait to do anything until we have 20/20 vision. You and I know that will never happen in this lifetime. We must be willing to be engaged in public discourse and to give our lifeblood to changing the world for the better, even as we know that our vision is impaired. But as we press onward, we must do so with humility, in community, and open to "prescription adjustments."
Paradoxically, admitting that our vision isn't perfect is the gateway to further clarity, personally and as a society. I encourage everyone to take the Civilize It pledge as a step on that journey. Owning that our vision is limited propels us to listen, learn, explore, and converse with civility and compassion. One day, when we meet God, we will behold all of reality in miraculous clarity. Until then, we must be willing to turn our old frames in for new ones time, after time, after time.
[Tracy Kemme is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. Author of the blog Diary of a Sister-in-Training, Tracy is excited about the future of religious life! She currently ministers at the Catholic Social Action Office in Cincinnati and as the Latino Ministry Coordinator at a local parish.]