I keep wanting to quit. I’ve been volunteering for 3.5 years at a local youth center, where struggling and troubled teens and young adults who are frequently couch surfing, homeless, and/or addicted find a safe space and help. Whenever my schedule gets cramped or workload increases, I want to stop volunteering to “free” some time. Why? More than anything I think it’s because they’re “different” from me. One of the hardest, and most important things I can do though, is to keep volunteering there, because it’s vital to actively seek and spend time with people different from myself. I think the same could be true for you!
I think it’s fair to say world peace would be a good thing, connection in your family is a plus, ending world hunger would be lovely, helping everyone in your circle eat regularly is kind, and so on. I’ve heard it said there is NO true and full peace, wholeness, and happiness for YOU, unless there is for EVERYONE. Why? I think it’s because as long as Person X in our immediate family feels broken, fearful, and bummed she/he is going to bring down and poison family gatherings. As long as races, people groups, and/or nations are undernourished (literally and metaphorically), under cared for, under “seen”, and so on, there will be wars, riots, murders, etc. Conversely, the more free and “fed” larger numbers of people become, the more whole and healthy we’re all able to get, because there’s less violence and sorrow and more celebration and joy.
My point here is one of the biggest reasons we go to war as nations, experience racial tensions and conflicts, polarize in politics, have divisions in our families or communities, and break relationship with family/friends is we are unwilling to remain in the presence of and in relationship with difference. It’s uncomfortable to spend good chunks of time with people of different beliefs, appearance, accents, cultural conditioning, and so on. We’re conditioned to flee this and/or fight it from a safe “distance”. If you look at the people in your neighborhood, your social circle, the people at communal events, and so on there’s a good chance you’ll find they’re generally alike when it comes to economic status, political beliefs, religious beliefs, race, and such. Without thinking about it, we naturally gravitate toward and spend time with people like us. While this is normal, easy, and good to an extent the path to peace, health, and happiness for all is NOT via a diversity of unties, thriving and flourishing for us will come from unity WITH diversity.
So, I keep deciding to volunteer at the Coffee Oasis because, as HARD as it is and as MUCH as I don’t want to do it, I NEED to for the thriving and flourishing of them, you, me, and so on. The concerns of a broke, hungry, and in need of a shower young adult are NOT mine. The worries of a teen with no home are NOT mine. YET, it is SO GOOD for my heart and mine to hear and learn from them. The more we can non-defensively and nonjudgmentally truly hear the thoughts, beliefs, opinions, cares, experiences, and worries of people UNLIKE us, the more our minds will expand, the more we’ll understand different people, and the more we’ll be able to love and care for those people.
Actively seeking diversity not only stretches us, expanding our borders and comfort zones, it also helps you and I see that amidst diversity and difference there is also commonality. We are, after all, one humanity united by our shared abilities, needs, and desires. Just like me, the youth at Coffee Oasis want to be seen, desire to be valued, crave connection, like to have a good time (we play a lot of pool), enjoy eating and drinking, and so on; spending time with people different from us gives us eyes to see that when all is said and done, “different” people really aren’t all that different.
A final and SUPER important benefit of mindfully being with people unlike us is it makes us stronger. Not “stronger” as in bigger biceps (though, wouldn’t that be nice?), but the more time we spend in calm and curious relationship with people different from us, the more “muscle” memory we build for remaining calm, kind, and curious in potentially triggering or heated situations. Think of heated and tense conversations on politics, religion, sports, and so on between two sides with opposite views, now imagine you being able to be in that possible conflict in a super calm and collected way, one that defuses tension and lessons the odds of a fight. Wouldn’t that be great? Practicing for that is what I’m talking about.
Given the other things I’m currently doing and circles I spend time with, right now, if I quit volunteering I’d cut a lot of difference out of my life, too much to be healthy I think. It seems to me actively going against the grain and seeking and spending time with difference in our lives is not only essential for us to become more kind, loving, inclusive, and happy people; it’s how the world is going to become a better place. Tangible, in the flesh diversity both expands our awareness and thinking and allows us to see how amidst all our differences, we’re all really and truly one. What do you think and how do you find and spend time with difference?
Grace and peace,