Have you ever been in a discussion or listening to a presentation where one word or phrase sends you down an unexpected direction? I suppose that the new direction in your mind could be considered helpful or maybe not so helpful, but your mind follows the path ahead.
There is research that states that we can only understand or take in whatever we encounter through our current lens. This lens is defined by our current set of knowledge, including both conscious and unconscious understandings. We only know what we know, and new information comes through that filter.
I had an experience where I brought a quote to a gathering. It was from a mystic that spoke deeply to me about community and shared contemplation. It had words in the quote that at one time would have triggered my own feelings rooted in past religious understandings. In my current understanding, these words don’t cause that kind of reaction for me because I have redefined them. I’ve had to work through the implications of often viewed exclusionary terms through a different lens. For me, the phrase was open, free, and inclusive. I understood the words based on the author's mystical understanding of God as Love, which is evident in his other writings.
Others struggled with the words and reacted to the exclusion evident in the phraseology present in the quote. I had missed it, and they reacted to it. If we are only able to understand through our own lens, the acceptance or reaction to a phrase tells us much about the lens we currently use.
In an undergraduate class I teach, Christian Faith and Thought, I use a slide of the words kindergartners use for the Pledge of Allegiance. The young students use “Richard stands” instead of “Republic Stands” and “the library down the hall” for “liberty for all.” These familiar words make much more sense than the words they have never heard before. We only know what we know, and we understand through that lens.
One of the gifts of teaching this course is allowing students to discover the lens they use to understand the world without judgment of themselves or others in the room. As they begin to trust the space we create together; they begin to identify their own lens. Then they can allow others in the room to help them redefine it in some ways and to further define it in other ways.
This kind of understanding is the gift of noticing where we get triggered. It allows us to take notice and to look deeply into what is going on in us, just beneath the surface. This process requires letting go of judgments toward those who disagree with us. We can only let go of our judgments when we notice them without judging ourselves in the process. Those who disagree with us aren’t the enemy, and neither are we. The dissonance created by being triggered helps us to take notice of our lens and surface how we make meaning around what we hold to be true.
The gift of doing this in community is allowing others to help us notice what we aren't able to see ourselves. Maybe it is more significant than we have understood previously. Often, this gift happens as people who live in a place of privilege listen to others who are part of an oppressed people group in some way. When we listen to the other, we can hear the full story and begin to hold the space that our view is only one facet of the larger picture.
My experience offered an invitation to listen without becoming defensive, as others were triggered. I could discount their experience, or I could follow the invitation to notice and allow their understanding to further refine and define my own. It gives me a broader perspective of community and walking alongside others.
That said, some words trigger me due to my background. When I encounter those words, the invitation is to take notice and allow the fuller perspective of the community to refine and define my understandings. This process is the gift of doing this work in community. It is part of the contemplative life - living in the giving and receiving flow of the Love of God. It is a beautiful thing and flows from a small group of people, through the one meeting, and way beyond into all the world. That is living in the flow of goodness and Love.
We don’t often have opportunities for this kind of discussion in our current political climate. We tend to debate, deciding who is right and who is wrong, instead of a public discourse that allows all those involved to be transformed. This work can not be done in isolation. The invitation is to allow disagreements and let the one in front of you speak into your life and you into theirs.
I will be teaching a series through the Companioning Center this fall - Discovering Your Lens. We will travel through 6-week courses designed to take a look at what has shaped what we hold to be true about faith. The first session will look at how our faith has been shaped through history, and the following one will be what we hold true about Scripture and the impact of our beliefs. These 6-week courses will be an opportunity to share in community what we believe and allow the community to help us look at the implications of those beliefs as well as redefining them. It isn’t about changing someone else’s lens, but it offers an opportunity to learn from others who might not believe the same way we do. In the journey together, we can notice ourselves, our lens, and others as we are all transformed together.
Check out companioningcenter.org for more information in coming weeks.
Hello, I'm Kathi Gatlin. Thanks for stopping by!