A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.
– Oliver Wendell Holmes
Growing up in a religiously conservative, white community in America’s heartland, my view of the world was rather small. My community included our family farm and my grandparents’ house, which was next door to the family business where my father worked. It included the Christian school and church we attended, a handful of small businesses we frequented, and the homes of various extended relatives – also in the Midwest.
The smallness of my world was not only geographical, it included a strongly held belief system that communicated a clear message to me, even as a young girl. A sense of belonging was only to be found in my family or in a slightly larger, but still Dutch, Reformed Christian circle. Anyone outside of that was suspect, not just because they were a stranger, but also because they likely didn’t share the same beliefs and values. The worldview fostered by my sheltered community held that people who looked, thought, and believed like me were likely good and safe; people who did not were to be feared. Those differences might influence, change, or corrupt me, and by extension, my community.
I didn’t have to travel very far for my small world to expand. A mere sixty miles away, Chris and I settled into our first home together – a tiny apartment in married student housing at Michigan State University. We were warmly welcomed by the family next door. Mohsen was an international student from Egypt, and his wife Mona stayed home with their three children. Over the next months, Mona and I began to build a cautious friendship – invitations to share a meal, lessons in cooking ethnic specialties, conversations about a shared love for sewing.
I remember the angst I felt inviting them to share a meal in our home the first time, wanting to honor the traditions of their Muslim faith, but having no experience with how to do that. And so, I had to risk asking uncomfortable questions – questions that didn’t assume the way we did things was the only right way, questions that required me to step outside the tight boundaries of my childhood.
In the years since then, we have lived in and traveled to dozens of communities, large and small, each new place another piece of my education in what it means to be human. It turns out the fear that I would be changed by relationships with people unlike me was real. My mind and heart have been stretched, each experience expanding my belief in the goodness of people, highlighting the similarities of our hopes and fears, affirming the common ground we hold as citizens of the world.
I think this is why I have felt such a heaviness in response to the barrage of fear and hatred being spoken by so many in the country I call home. Political leaders and friends, pastors and family members, all returning to what feels like an instinctual fear of “the other.” I believe the self-protective instinct is real, and I also believe that instinct is being exploited by those who benefit from the marketing of fear. Each time I watch the news, I feel the prodding to retreat to my safe, homogenous space, fortified with increasing restrictions on who does and does not belong. I’ve stopped watching the news, which feels like sacrilege coming from a home where the evening news was on par with dinnertime devotions. I find sources to stay informed, but I can’t go back to living in fear.
What does it look like for me to continue to expand the tight boundaries I grew up with? It means seeking out opportunities to put myself in unfamiliar spaces, interacting with people outside of my comfortable suburban neighborhood, knowing the discomfort will stretch me in good ways.
And here’s the thing: while traveling to other cultures expands our understanding of humanity, we don’t have to travel to another country to do this.
I’ve had conversations with Uber drivers, often from countries that America has labeled terrorist, that turned into the sharing of beliefs about what it means to be courageous or afraid, about our families and how they shape who and how we are in the world.
I believe now, more than ever, we are being called to remember our common humanity, a humanity rooted in the identity proclaimed by our Creator, which is simply the truth that we—the collective we—are very good.
Janet Stark is a woman learning to bless her depth and sensitivity. She is grateful for the deep love she shares with her husband, Chris, and their kids and grandkids. Janet loves curling up with a good book, trying new recipes on her friends and family, and enjoying long conversations with friends over a cup of really good coffee. She is a life-long lover of words and writes about her experiences here.