From Greenland to the smallest islet, islands make up one-sixth of the world’s land mass. Their isolation can cause unique ecosystems to develop, so they provide fascinating perspectives. Some of the world’s most unusual and rare species develop in island habitats. Our human species have not always been supportive of the others, but we are learning.
Islands can be our teachers. On a canoe trip with four other adults in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota, a storm hit while we paddled the vast Brule Lake. The dark sky turned the water steel-gray, raindrops clouded our vision, and the novices among us had an especially difficult time negotiating the growing waves. Though paddling with all our strength, we made little progress. We pulled up at a very small island to rest. Though it was only about 11 in the morning, we decided to have lunch while we waited out the storm. After eating people dispersed.
Two of us sat on the dome of the island and chatted. After a while I decided to check in with the others. Those who sat near our canoes were distraught. “When will we ever be able to get going again? Look at those whitecaps!” I didn’t know the answer. A five-minute walk took me over the island to the other side, where our youngest member was distraught. “Why aren’t we embarking already? Look how calm it is!” “Come with me,” I said, and led him to the other side. He understood immediately.
Our perspectives are rooted in our experiences. We draw conclusions based on what we know, or feel, or see. Our own distinct human journey leads us. Another person’s journey leads them to different perspectives and conclusions. It’s as if they are seeing a different side of the island from us. This can become a conflict... or an opportunity.
Inspiring author Parker Palmer suggests that instead of arguing about issues, he says something like “Please, tell me your story. I want to listen. I know I can learn from your experience.” This approach helps to get past knee-jerk reactions and overused phrases. Palmer notes “I’ve found that suffering is an aquifer on which we all draw. That’s one place where we have something in common to talk about.”
Crossing over to another person’s side of the island can help me to see another perspective. Opening to another’s story can shed light in a discussion or argument. I might discover suffering that we have in common. I have to take seriously the possibility that I may be changed by their story, so I have to ask if the risk is worth it to me. It usually is.
Early in my ministry I got a phone call: “Could you come over? We have a problem here.” My heart was in my throat as I walked to this family’s home. I entered to find three generations: two sad teenagers, two defiant parents, and a kindly grandmother. The air was thick with tension. They muted the noisy television at my request, and I sat down and asked what was happening. Everyone started to speak at once so I promised they would all be heard, and one by one they shared their emotional perspective. The listening was deep, the ramifications wide. As we all sat pondering, I noticed the image on the silent television screen: Professional wrestling. A fitting metaphor!
When wrestling with an issue, it’s hard to remember to stay open. Research has shown that if we throw facts at each other, it only makes us dig in to our convictions. That doesn’t get us anywhere. If we respect each other by listening to our stories, it makes it harder to distrust each other. It’s like walking over to the other side of the island and looking through another person’s eyes for a moment. And if the other one feels heard and respected, they might just be ready to listen to another perspective.
Whether the discussion is religion, or politics, or lifestyle, or any other hot-button topic, respect and deep listening can make a difference. What might you discover by crossing the island to see a different perspective? If someone were to ask you, “What experiences in your life or faith brought you to your convictions?” what might you say? How would you tell your story?
This article is adapted from one of the sessions written by Cathy Barker for the spiritual exploration called Geography of Grace.