It was Mary’s second day working for our meditation supply company when I asked her if she’d like to meditate with my wife and me during work time.
“No, I don’t meditate — I’m a member of the church next door.” The evangelical church next door.
I felt a little shiver, generated from my North Carolina-born and bred amygdala. I knew something about evangelicals.
That evening I told my wife, “Honestly, I’m not sure how this is going to work. She’ll need to learn all about the Buddha statues, learn the Buddhist names these things, answer questions about meditation cushions.” My wife replied, “Well she chose the job. And she seems to like it.” And all at once, it was clear as a meditation bell — Oh I see, the open-minded Buddhist is the closed-minded one around here.
Mary was simply the best employee we could imagine — reliable, capable, caring. And yes, she learned the Buddhist names of everything.
When we meet someone from another tribe, we often put them into a predetermined category in our minds. And there they stay. The truth is, the other person is always much more than the walls of that category can contain. Buddhism teaches that we tend to be fixated on categories and thus not see the whole picture of a person.
Once we’ve assigned a negative category to someone we may tend to avoid the person based simply on that. The category could be religion, political persuasion, or social status, or ethnicity. It could be someone we see as an adversary. If we find ourselves in a dispute, it can be hard to see past the category of “person who is dead wrong” to their more positive characteristics.
The more we steer away from people based on the boxes we’ve put them in, the more isolated from them we become. And they from us. This is polarization, and if we don’t check it the poles drift, and a chasm begins to form.
In his most recent book Upheaval, the anthropologist Jared Diamond, whose specialty is the collapse of civilizations, calls polarization the most dangerous problem this country faces because, if unchecked, it could end democracy as we know it. We have a long list of problems in this country, but I think he may be right.
Mary (not her real name) left our company when she moved off the island, and a few years after that I met Mike Ivaska, the pastor at that church next door. It’s hard to say why, but we like each other. We have different views on a whole range of issues. We believe quite different things. But we share plenty of things too. We are both fathers, ministers, islanders. We’re both curious, and, importantly, we both like a good joke, and don’t mind aiming at ourselves. For a good man of the cloth, he has a wicked sense of humor.
Mike’s brother gave him “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” by Jonathan Haight, which I’d already read and enjoyed very much. We discussed the things that divide people from one another.
I always look forward to our coffees on the Minglement porch. I’ve learned a lot from Mike — about church administration, the history of politics and evangelicalism, why Millennials stay away from religious services. But maybe what I’ve learned most is that genuine friendship can form across what looks to be a chasm. And if it can for us, it can for others. That gives me a glimmer of hope.
Koshin Cain is the Abbot of the Puget Sound Zen Center.