We don’t know how to really listen.

Years ago, I remember hearing about a group of Christians who attended the Atlanta Gay Pride Parade with signs that read “We are sorry.” They were led by pastors and authors Craig Gross and Jason Harper, who were in Atlanta for the last stop on their book tour.

“At Atlanta Pride,” Mr. Gross recalled in a blog post, “we had hundreds of conversations, one person at a time, that helped close the gap that has created polarizing propaganda on both sides.” Kudos to them. In order to have those conversations, they had to really listen. They had to be authentically open to areas of common ground. But more importantly, they had to acknowledge that members of their own tribe had treated the gay community terribly.  

We need more courageous acts like this in our world. The genuine expression of remorse. The heartfelt apology. But it’s crucial to remember what came before that apology, which is what made the apology necessary—intolerance. The intolerance expressed, for instance, by the Westboro Baptist Church, whose members picket military funerals with signs that read “God hates fags” and “God blew up the troops” to protest a nation that tolerates homosexuality. This intolerance exists everywhere: in homophobes and gays, in Israelis and Palestinians, in Republicans, in Democrats, and sometimes, even in my own self.

The most dangerous intolerance registers in subtle ways, and can masquerade as friendliness or emotional support. In my case, it was a simple rolling of the eyes when someone mentioned their neighbor had gone “Christian.” That tiny human gesture says, “I am on your side. It’s too bad you have to deal with ‘them.’” This, from a gay woman — a Buddhist, gay woman, mind you! — who wants to be accepted for who she is. Does it bring me any closer to enlightenment if I just gather with more of my own kind so we can collectively piss on everyone who doesn’t understand us?

There’s another road to take. If I don’t agree with you, but I listen deeply to what you have to say—without interrupting with witty banter or skillful debate— might I learn something new? Something that could enlarge my worldview? Could I even find a common thread between us, and thus create a new and unlikely friendship?

I remember a time when I could have had a conversation like this with my sister. We were in Sicily for her daughter’s wedding. One bright blue day, we were swimming together in the Mediterranean, making our way slowly out to the buoy in the clear water.  Things were starting to be good between us after decades of a kind of civil estrangement (we never spoke, we never fought). It was August 2009, six years before gay marriage was legalized in the United States, and she asked me why this issue was so important to me. By that time, I’d been living with my partner for seven years. She knew this. I couldn’t believe she was asking me this question, and in the moment, I responded with exasperated sarcasm and a refusal to explain what, in my mind, should have been obvious: that we wanted the same rights and cultural acceptance that my sister automatically enjoys with her husband merely because they are a heterosexual couple. The fact that she couldn’t see that infuriated me, leading to a longstanding, cold silence. Years later, I realized she was just asking me a sincere question. She truly wanted to understand.

In that one instant I turned my back on the very conversation I claim I’m hungry for. I shut it down. The Christians didn’t shut it down. Bill O’Reilly didn’t. Me. NPR-listening, Dalai-Lama-following, yoga-teaching, vegan me. And it didn’t stop there. Afterward, (and this is worse) I couldn’t wait to share this exchange with sympathetic ears . . . casting myself as the victim of her total cluelessness.

So let’s get this straight. My sister didn’t bait me. She just asked me a question. I’m the one who lashed out and then built a wall between us for the rest of the trip. I remained civil, but there were no more swims, and I scanned her every word for injury. My guess is this happens the world over, billions of times a day. And when you think about all of us behaving in this way, unconsciously, the unconsciousness gathers momentum and  increases in power.

But at least I noticed. Way too late, but still. This moment of reactivity doesn’t sum up the entirety of who I am. I have good qualities too, lots of them.  And this is true for everyone who has spat out a spiked comment or behaved in other hateful ways. There are many who, even though they’re on the “wrong side” of an issue on Facebook, can still listen deeply, who try to do the right thing, who speak respectfully to their families, and who hold up signs at Gay Pride parades that read “We are sorry.”

I guess this is my “I am sorry” sign, held high in the crowd that gathered for the Sisters-Who-Want-To-Know parade. The truth is, I’ve been hungry all my life for exactly this kind of real conversation. I was just as hungry then as I am now. It’s just . . . no one taught me how to do it. So when the opportunity arose, I freaked out and ran the other way. It’s hard to listen without judgment, to tolerate ambiguity, paradox, and in some cases, ignorance. But if we are ever to experience any measure of true peace, this is something we will all need to learn.

And I am learning. One conversation at a time.

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