On a recent Sunday I found myself sitting in a church.
My church attendance could be referred to as spotty at best, and my religious education as a child was practically non-existent. So when I find myself in church, it is usually as a tag along because I have been gently prodded to attend with others who wish to go, as I was recently.
When I go, I tend to be more of an observer than a fully engaged participant. I also think we could all use a little more thoughtful reflection in our lives and churches can be a good place for that, no matter the religion.
Interestingly this time though, my take-away from this particular visit had nothing to do with the sermon but everything to do with the people who were there.
We love “our way”.
We spend a lifetime developing our tastes and our preferences. We do that by our own trial and error as well as by observing others. Being critical helps us develop standards. It helps us measure ourselves and our work.
Along the way we come up with “our way”, the things that seem right to us about the way things should be. And when we’re looking for things to do, people to spend our time with, or places to work, we tend to look for things that fit into the way we think things should be. It’s only natural.
That’s why the people who love Facebook love Facebook – because its algorithms are built to show you things it has learned that you like - by your “likes”. (btw- if you’d like to find out what happens if you “like” everything in your feed, you should read this.)
The trouble with too much of being around only the stuff we love or doing things “our way” is that we slowly surround ourselves with a “bubble of sameness”, a “bubble of comfort”.
Don’t get me wrong, I love being comfortable as much as the next person. It gives us peace of mind and allows us to focus on getting stuff done.
A problem arises, though, when we become super critical of things (or people) that don’t fit into our bubble.
Back to church
That church I was talking about was in the country - actually in a forest. It is a far throw from the grand Basilicas you may have wandered into on your travels.
It’s down a dusty gravel road, in a clearing surrounded by tall green pines. The parking lot is a combination of gravel and patches of grass worn down by those seeking something larger than themselves once a week.
The inside is plain - off-white tongue-and-groove walls contrasting with the solid oak pews, of which there are only 8 on each side. Even when it’s overflowing with people, its intimate atmosphere makes anything more than a whisper bounce across the room. There, the weekly orator can look directly into your eyes while speaking, which, I can tell you, is somewhat unsettling.
There is a smattering of the usual things that adorn churches - wooden carvings, crosses and plaques - but they are all simple in nature. Nothing gilded with gold here save for the offertory items. It is a humble building. The pews are filled with loyal year-round attendees and cottage-goers (of which I was one).
For me this time, the most inspiring people in the room were the two gentlemen who made up the “choir”. They stood prominently at the left side of the room. These men in their worn plaid shirts and blue jeans were both in their upper years, one strumming a guitar and the other using his slight voice to fill the room.
It would have been easy to focus on their raspy voices and more than slightly out-of-tune guitar. It would have been easy to be critical and miss out on something more important.
What they may have lacked in refined musical technique, they more than made up for in their conviction. Their enjoyment was obvious, their quiet confidence apparent. While their role was supposedly secondary, they demonstrated what it means to be part of a community.
I couldn’t help but sit there and admire them. I could see how they contributed and how much they were appreciated.
I was inspired not by their grandeur but by their charm and personality. I felt like an outsider but I felt like I was welcome.
Criticism is easy
It made me think about how it’s possible to miss the less obvious ways people contribute if you’re always measuring things by how they relate to “your way”. As someone who has performed with some pretty amazing musicians in my life, it would have been easy to judge only by their musical prowess.
It would have been easy to miss the contribution of those two gentlemen if I only focused on their musical technique and ability.
It would have been easy to miss what they were really great at - bringing a room full of people together and creating a warm welcoming atmosphere. What they actually brought to the room was way more important than how perfectly they played. As a matter of fact, their way of doing things “differently” added something special – something unique – to the experience.
This experience has encouraged me to look a little deeper at people and to not be so judgmental. I like to think I’m not that judgmental but I probably am. I think it’s a common flaw, one many of us have but are reluctant to admit to.
Many of us are guilty of missing what some people really bring to the table because they don’t do things the way we expect them to be done. We measure them against our version of perfection when perfection really isn’t the point. We miss the bigger picture of what they’re bringing to whatever needs to be accomplished.
It made me think about a few ways to be less critical and more accepting.
1) Think before you speak. Think about why you’re saying what you’re saying. What are the feelings surrounding that?
2) Try to think more deeply about another person’s reasons for what they may be doing. What is motivating them? What are the benefits?
3) Be open-minded. Our minds are made to notice things that are different. Interestingly, when it comes to things like technology or other such developments, we are often excited about the next new thing, or a different way of doing things. But strangely, when a person is “different” or does things “differently” than us, we are often critical of them.
All we can do is try