I saw The Matrix: Resurrections in a mostly empty theater a few weeks ago.
I went with my buddy, Dan, an ethnic Mennonite pastor's kid from Kansas who I met by chance in the South Loop. He is an animated guy who has this habit of suddenly talking in cartoon voices and humming rock songs. He is also one of the few people who knew where I went to college. We played the Mennonite (and Quaker) name-game and now we're friends. That's just how it works in my world.
Dan took out a pint of ice cream during the opening credits, opened it up, and scooped his finger in.
"Why are you doing this?" I asked.
"Nathan," Dan looked at me straight in the eyes. "It's midnight. They ran out of spoons, and I need sugar."
Then he held his pint out to me and said in a Elmer Fudd voice, "Take a dip, friend."
Admittedly, this wasn't the weirdest thing that's happened to me at 12:30 AM - or even the first time I watched someone grab ice cream with their bare hands in public. But it's in the top five, at least. I got to thinking why I'm friends with so many outside-of-the-box people.
I remembered that, as much as we're programmed to think that other people's differences are acceptable, there is always an underlying assumption inside of us that people should act like us if only they got it right. So we go out into the world with this idea that we have a moral high ground because we do things a certain way.
We all are carrying around a certain lens that we are not aware of. What we never factor in is that the social class we were raised in, our race, religious identity, various cultural identities, play a massive part in how we approach the world and operate. It takes intentional work to get a wider perspective.
For instance, there is a brilliant book called The Power of the Past by Jessie Streib, a professor of sociology at Duke University, who looked at mixed-class marriages. She found that, more and more, people's financial background gave them a cultural understanding that was assumed to be universal and they were shocked to find it be an issue in marriage later in life. The issues that came up weren't necessarily how finances were handled, but in the posture and attitudes of each partner. Blue collar-background partners tended to be more laizezz-faire and reckless with important decisions while white collar-background partners tended to need to plan everything out and often had issues connecting emotionally to others because their upbringing focused more on having the appearance of being proper. The thing is these were both ways they were taught on how to thrive in their contexts. Neither of those backgrounds or problems are inherently wrong. They're cultural byproducts.
The solution presented in the book is learning to accept the cultural differences. The couples who were able to do that and accept a more egalitarian form of marriage were the ones who didn't end in divorce.
In my own learning about poverty, it feels at times I'm learning about an entirely different world than the one I am used to - and also recognizing that my way of approaching the world is inherently subjective. There is no such thing as a purely objective worldview because I'm carrying my background into everything I read and experience.
Churches, and other religious organizations, provide the rare opportunity for friendships to be formed despite these class differences. Relationships that are formed in spite of class are vital for community and economic development. That is why many sociologists point out the need for these institutions in society.
Social class is just one world, though. And if something like that influences the ways we see the world, what are some other areas that we are blind to? Our race, gender, politics, sexuality, rural or urban environments, and religion (or lack thereof), all play a major part in how someone approaches life.
Fiction is one of those windows that gives us a glimpse into someone else's world that we don't experience or understand. I tend to try to have a go-to memoir or novel for people wanting to know what it's like to experience life as someone different. Studies have shown reading fiction is a vital part of learning empathy.
It can go the other way around too for the writer.
A story I wrote recently was intentionally told from perspectives I do not usually consider: a woman escaping an abusive church and husband, a gay Buddhist, and an ex-Catholic. It's a journey about finding who Jesus actually is and how healing is possible. I had women and gay friends give it a read to help me see how I can make it feel more authentic. I listened to the stories of both Christians and ex-Christians about religious abuse when they felt okay to share.
In learning about those experiences, I became especially more aware of how to to talk about, and display, trauma in a way that was helpful to that specific audience. While I am usually someone who believes in a blunt approach in showing how hard life can be in storytelling, if I want this to be read by people who experienced that then I have to respect their background and the way they would tell their own story.
One of my favorite writers, Matthew Quick (best known for Silver Linings Playbook), writes almost exclusively about characters who are mentally ill. Every book of his that I've read hits me hard, because he makes people who are misunderstood, and different than him, as the main heroes.
For instance, in The Reason You're Alive, the main character is a Vietnam vet with a traumatic brain injury and PTSD. He is a product of his time and doesn't have a filter in the ways he talks about race and politics. He wears his military uniform everywhere. Yet, the more that is uncovered about his story, the more it is understood that Vietnam robbed him of any clear understanding of the world (but, at the same time, uncovering a deeper understanding of how things are.) Despite that, his character and redemption shines through by the end of the story. It's intense and hilarious.
On a spiritual level, as a Christian, I have to believe that anyone is capable of redemption and doing amazing things. How can I believe that in practice if I don't understand people's stories and worldviews? What I loved about The Reason You're Alive is that it made me feel sympathetic for someone completely different than me. And reading about his journey to wholeness reminded me of the things I believe in applied in a very different way.
Another Matthew Quick book, The Good Luck of Right Now, is about someone writing to Richard Gere, confiding all of his secrets, and becomes friends with a bipolar priest. He does this as a way to cope with his mother's death. He becomes friends with a guy who can only get attached to cats and a woman who is convinced she was abducted by aliens. Again, redemption and beauty shine through in spite of the mess.
Having been in ministry and broader social work for a few years, I've met those people who others would label a lost cause who turned out great. Matthew Quick seems to address those stereotypes of them being "unfixable" head on. From people with schizophrenia to addicts to people with borderline personality disorder, I've seen all sorts of people's lives completely change and become better. Whenever I meet someone more neurotypical and they think they don't have it within themselves to change or to do good, I am reminded of the positive attitudes of those "lost causes."
Going back to Dan - if I only had the glimpse of someone grabbing ice cream with his bare hands in a movie theater at midnight, I wouldn't know what to do and he probably wouldn't be the kind of main character people would expect to be reading about. However, Dan is actually a lawyer who spends his free time serving his community. He does more for the common good than most people. His work has made him embrace joy and wonder. He now cares less about what people think. If he wants to do something, he just does it. I admire that, even if I can't be as chaotic as he is.
If we only read stories of people who are like us, we miss out on seeing the overall beauty of other people's character. We need stories about different characters and lost causes. We need characters with enough baggage to fill an entire airplane.
Because if we can see how they are used for good, we can look inside ourselves and see potential to be used for good too.
But most of all, we can look at someone completely different than us and embrace them as they are - not as we expect them to be.
The Bible has plenty to say about morality and how we should treat people, but it doesn't seem to have a thing to say about grabbing ice cream with your bare hands in a theater at midnight.
The fact is there is no instruction manual on how to do life and it's too short to worry if others think you are doing it right (did you see my blue collar-background coming out?)
And friends, I thank God for the flexibility to define your own path. Embrace and celebrate your weirdness. We all need it.