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Driving home a few nights ago I came horrifyingly close to hitting three young skunks that were cavorting in the middle of the road. I hit the brakes so hard my kids said their seatbelts locked.

The whole time I was screeching to a halt I was clenching all my muscles and whispering “no no no no no don’t freak out it’s OK shh shh shh” like a lunatic because I didn’t want to startle the skunks by making any loud noises or sudden movements. Never mind that I was lurching towards them in an enormous, roaring vehicle.

It’s weird what makes sense when you’re under pressure. All three skunks gamboled off into the bushes, unharmed, and, thankfully, unbothered.

My car still smells like teen boy. This may have seemed like a problem in the past but is suddenly just fine with me. Tender mercies; it was a close call.

I was still recovering from trying to speak soothingly to skunks when I attended a workshop with my oldest son called “Navigating Divisive Conversations.” It was sponsored by the Logan and Utah State University Interfaith Initiatives, along with the First Presbyterian Church in Logan. The brilliant folks from The Church Lab, based in Austin, Texas, led the presentation and shared strategies for being genuinely kind and loving, even when you find yourself in a dialog with someone who strongly disagrees with you.

I learned a lot, but mostly humility. Often, in any kind of communication skills class, the result is people who are better-equipped to argue and articulate their hostility. While we might say we don’t want to argue, highly-trained communicators often have the sharpest knives in any kind of tense discussion. I admit my own communication knives are plenty sharp — and I’m not bragging.

Setting aside any agenda of “winning” a conversation is a vital part of actually connecting with people despite differences. Ollie Jarvis, the co-pastor of The Church Lab, emphasized the importance of listening to others with an attitude of sincere curiosity. When we are interested in discovering more about others’ perspectives, we allow ourselves a chance to get some basic education about where they’re coming from, and can then see nuance and build bridges to improve relationships.

None of these good things can happen if we treat every encounter like our personal TED Talk, critiquing and instructing others on how they ought to be living and the worldview they ought to hold. This is why any kind of evangelizing is prohibited in group discussions sponsored by The Church Lab. If you believe you have The Only Way and are intent on sharing it, you are not in the right frame of mind to understand others’ perspectives, which may be equally thoughtful and dearly held.

This willingness to listen and be curious applies to any encounter, we learned, whether religious or secular.

But here’s where I got a double-dose of humility. There were people at this workshop who were already genuine masters of gentle, effective communication: teachers, pastors, advocates for marginalized folks who fervently work for change in the name of God. And they were there to learn, too, not because they don’t know how to navigate divisive discussions, but because they want to be able to do it from the very best place in their hearts. They want their loving, effective communication to be more than performing a series of well-honed skills; they want to actually and sincerely love people they know they’ll never agree with.

When I looked inward, I realized these were far more noble goals than my own. I had merely wanted to learn to maintain my composure while still feeling self-righteous disdain for others.

But that is not Christ’s way, the more humble participants reminded me.

Perhaps better behavior can inspire us to improve our attitudes, but making our hearts soft and receptive to the Savior’s gentle view of everyone is an ongoing, internal work.

While my son and I attended this workshop mostly with general self-improvement in mind, several participants had very specific goals, many focused on potentially stressful family gatherings during the upcoming holidays.

One young woman at my table was planning to introduce her girlfriend to her conservative, religious family at Thanksgiving dinner. That she dates women would not be a surprise, but this would be the first time she brought someone home to meet her parents.

She said values her relationship with her parents and extended family. She is hoping they can see for themselves what a terrific person her girlfriend is and how happy they are together.

As she was telling the people in our small breakout group about how much she wants the holiday season to go smoothly, I felt how worried she is. My mother heart was squeezed, hard. If my own child were so anxious about introducing me to a positive aspect of his life because he thought I would reject it — and maybe even reject him — to the point that he was literally attending a seminar to learn how to build a relationship with me despite differences, well, I’d be crushed. I resolved to communicate my unconditional love for my children more enthusiastically.

I don’t know her parents, but I wish I did. I wonder if they know how much they mean to their daughter. I wonder if all of us, in one way or another, are like this thoughtful woman or her parents, hoping for good things but feeling conflicted, obligated to hold back, somehow, perhaps more than we should.

And maybe we’re all a little like those ridiculous skunks, playing in the road, oblivious to the danger we’re in and the devastation we might cause.

Pick your metaphor; the result is the same. If we want to magnify our gratitude for all the good things in our lives, we must look inward and then love outward, more deeply, more sincerely, with no holding back.

Contact Sally at ordinarywitness@hotmail.com.

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