Common Ground

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Have you ever found yourself in an argument, not knowing how you got there? Perhaps you were just having a simple discussion with a friend. Maybe you were talking to a stranger when you saw they were wearing a certain team’s logo. Perhaps you were trying to talk to someone about a faith-based issue. Whatever it was, both you and the other person started off in a very calm manner. Things in the conversation were progressing just fine, and then both of you are yelling at each other! “What gives?” you think, backtracking the conversational process, “how did we get from a nice chat to getting mad at each other?”

I, for one, am not known to back down from my own convictions. When I believe that something is right, I believe that something is right. When I get passionate about an issue, I get passionate about an issue. And, I believe the other side is wrong. Of course, these ideas are founded in the way I was raised, my education, and, most importantly, my belief in Christ. When I get into an argument with someone about a certain issue, my goal is to get that person to agree with me. In that moment, there is little else in the world that I care about.

I think a lot of us interact with others the same way. It is a pretty common mindset that we have when we get into arguments. Whether the nature of the interaction is faith-based, political, or just saying your team is the best, we get into these conversations needing to influence the other person. But there is something that we always forget in these moments: they are trying to do the exact same thing.

Sure, in the nature of these conversations, on some level, we acknowledge the other person is trying to make a point. This can be clear to a frustrating level. But what I am trying to say here is we do not realize how strongly the other person believes in their convictions. When I do get into an argument, I often find myself thinking, “Come on, you cannot really believe this!” I believe their convictions are faulty, and therefore it will be easier for me to sway them than for them to sway me. This does nothing but harm for us in today’s day and age.

This is a dangerous style of interaction. It is dangerous because when we do this, we do not realize that they hold as tightly to their convictions as we do ours. Because we believe that the other person cannot really believe something that is the opposite of our thinking, we lose the idea that they do hold on to that value just as much as we hold on to ours. This makes us more adamant that we are right and they are wrong. This makes us argue with more passion. This ramps up our feelings on the subject and actually makes us less willing to listen to that other person. At the end of the argument, we find ourselves walking away in disgust. We are driven so far we believe there is no common ground for us to stand on.

If we just approach someone without attempting to understand their story, how can we expect to reach them? If we go into a conversation with no understanding of what the other party is in need of, how are we supposed to give that to them? If we assume to know everything about that other person, are we really approaching them with love? What can we do to find the common ground we need to move forward together?

What we need here is empathy. Empathy is, “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” In other words, empathy is an attempt to understand the journeys and experiences of another. When we use empathy, we are trying to understand what makes a person who they are. We are appreciating where another person has been in their emotional, spiritual, and physical journeys. Empathy is not a skill that comes easily. Empathy is a skill that can include a whole lot of risk. But empathy is a valuable skill to learn for when we are tempted to argue with another person.

An excellent example of empathy in the real world comes from an article posted by Lindy West. I would not be surprised if you have never heard of Lindy West. I had not heard of her until this past week. She is a writer for an online magazine. A friend posted an article by her on Facebook and the title caught my attention. It read, “What Happened When I Confronted My Cruelest Troll.”

In case you are not familiar with the most recent iteration of the word, a troll is someone who harasses another online. They often use social media to badger, taunt, and threaten their victims. They use social media because it is easy to just create new accounts. Even when the administrator of a network bans fake accounts, the trolls can just create a new one and pick up where they left off. That is why the phrase, “Don’t feed the trolls,” has become so popular. It is many person’s beliefs that if you simply ignore these trolls, they will find no pleasure in harassing you. If you stop letting their harassment “get to you,” they will just get bored and move on.

In her article, Lindy West tells the story of how this one troll in the summer of 2013 really got under her skin. He went above and beyond all efforts in order to harass her. He created a fake Twitter account in the name of her dead father. In the biography section of this account, the one using Lindy’s dead father’s name, it read, “Embarrassed father of an idiot. Other two kids are fine, though.” It was clear the purpose of the account was to single out, and harass, Lindy.

Ms. West’s father had died from prostate cancer just 18 months before all of this started. In her article, Lindy describes her father as a caring, vibrant, musically gifted man who cared for just about everyone he met. Yet, here, she notes, “… there was my dad’s dear face twinkling out at me from my Twitter feed. Someone – bored, apparently, with the usual angles of harassment – had made a fake Twitter account purporting to be my dead dad, featuring a stolen, beloved photo of him, for no reason other than to hurt me.”

Lindy goes through the usual thought process of being the victim of online harassment. I say, “usual,” here, because it is so common. People are harassed online every day. It is a usual thing that happens in our society. And Ms. West knew the usual routine. She could just ignore this troll. She could block this troll. She could also report this troll to site administrators. Those processes were standard protocol for dealing with online harassment. But something stuck in the back of her mind. She knew that even if she did all these things, her dead father’s photo on a fake account would still be out there, on Twitter, making fun of her. To her, it did not seem that the, “usual,” course of action was the right course of action.

Instead of acting the same way she always did, Lindy West decided that she would write a blog post about it. She put herself out there in the most vulnerable way possible. She wrote about her feelings and posted it to her website, as well as the magazine for which she writes.

The next day, she woke up to an e-mail. An e-mail from her troll.

“Hey Lindy,

I don’t know why or even when I started trolling you. …

I think my anger towards you stems from your happiness with your own           being. It offended me because it served to highlight my unhappiness with my         own self.”

He went on to say he had deleted all of the Google Mail accounts he had created in her father’s name, as well as that fake Twitter account. He said doing what he did was the lowest thing he had ever done. When he read her reaction to seeing her dead father on the Internet, he realized there was another human being reading the things he had written. A human being who was having incredibly human reactions to what he had written. He apologized again. And again. And then he donated $50 dollars to the cancer treatment center where her father had been.

Lindy threw open the door. She put herself out there for the whole world to see. She opened her feelings to the whole world. She took a risk so big there was no way it was going to pay off for her. But it did. And it changed her and her troll’s life. The empathy that this harasser suddenly had made him realize that there was common ground for the both of them. The empathy she received made Lindy think the same thing.

PAUSE

That empathy that came to be after Lindy opened herself up to the troll is the common ground we all need in our lives. It is the common ground that Paul is talking about in this particular section of his first letter to the church in Corinth. To be a Jew, Paul became a Jew. To minister to those outside of the church, he walked with them. He became weak to understand the weak. In order to affect the hearts and minds of the ones he was trying to reach, Paul empathized with them. Paul walked with them, suffered with them, and tried to understand their points of view. In order to be a better teacher of the Gospel of Christ, Paul reached out to others to understand from where they were coming.

When we put ourselves in other people’s shoes, to understand their ideas, beliefs, and stances, we can reach out to them more effectively. Not only will we be able to reach them better, but also we will understand them better. No only will we understand them better, but we will love them with more intensity. When we understand where a person is coming from, we can start to understand what it means to be them. It is then we can walk in their shoes as Christ walked with and like us.

Just talking about the Gospel is not enough. Part of spreading the Word of Christ is being like Christ. Using empathy to understand where another person comes from allows us to love them more. Lindy could have just used her usual tactics and ignored her troll. She could have dismissed him and tried to move on. But by taking a completely different path, she changed the narrative. She made it possible for love to appear. And it did.

The moment this person realized that his threatening attitude was effecting another person he changed. In fact, this past summer, West wanted to talk to the person who had harassed her again. She asked the radio show, “This American Life,” to help her seek this man out. They e-mailed him, and after months of silence, he agreed to speak. West and this man ended up spending two and a half hours on the phone together. She found out that when he was harassing her, he felt disappointed in himself. He was taking his anger at himself out on her because she had the same physical appearance and was happy. He found it easy to direct that anger somewhere else, particularly with the anonymity of the Internet. But when she posted her reaction to him using her father’s likeness, it changed him. He saw the other person that is Lindy. He went back to school to be a teacher. He lost a lot of weight. He found a new love interest. He is now volunteering at a school while he continues his education. And she ended up forgiving him after their conversation.

Empathy is a huge risk. I am fairly positive that not every community Paul went into accepted him with open arms. Lindy could have only given more ammunition to her online harassers. But like Paul tells us in the text from today, we are not proclaiming the Gospel without risk. We do not expect to be rewarded. We do not expect treasures or success. But instead, we humble ourselves to do our duty.

Hear this call to not only proclaim the Gospel, but for an extreme amount of empathy while doing so: “If I proclaim the gospel,” Paul writes, “this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel… What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel. For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.”

Arguing is not always without merit. Sometimes, it is good to have an argument. Sometimes, an argument is how we learn to grow. But learn this: the other person, on the other side of the issue, is a human just like you. Do not discount them without understanding their story. Do not dismiss them without trying to love them first. Do not walk away from someone without trying to understand him or her. When we empathize with someone, the only result will be to love her or him more.

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