Learning at the Margins
I’ve finally noticed something curious about the way churches operate. As part of our Biblical instructions to treat our neighbors as ourselves, we work out the details for enabling the youth of our churches to travel to disheveled places that need help and support. Once there our youth work together to build houses, make repairs, clean up messes, or any number of other service-oriented projects. Gained on the part of our youth are a sense of the importance of doing good for others and a raised feelings of strength and competence in the world. All is well.
But the Golden Rule of serving our neighbors as ourselves has a necessary flip side. It is seemingly a one-way operation, from giver to receiver. Somebody with needs must allow somebody else to give them help and support. It creates a dependent-independent relationships unless additional steps are taken to allow for reciprocal relationships to develop. As a matter of fact, most church benevolence programs are built around these types of we-helper à them-helpee relationships. Those programs do good, that’s for sure. Building potable water systems and protective housing are sure steps of doing good. But there is more.
What about the gifts we can offer others of being open to what they have to offer us; wisdom perhaps, or help fixing something, or stories of their experiences that broaden our knowledge of people, relationships, cultures or of the world? Those are real gifts. In schools and colleges we pay good money to receive such gifts from others. Can we see ourselves as helping others by opening ourselves up to being helped in one way or another by them?
It makes sense that we want our children and youth to grow up feeling that they are competent doers and helpers of others. We want them to develop a strong sense of what social scientists call, “agency”, feelings that “I can do things that matter”.
So why then, can’t we older adults, we folks who have helped make other people’s world go around as teachers, librarians, pilots, business managers, administrative assistants, medical professionals, farmers, mothers, engineers, truck drivers, etc. for some 50+ years, now see it as an opportunity to open ourselves to learning from people at the margins; to find out what’s on their mind, to listen to their stories, to appreciate their accomplishments – whatever those might be – and to sit and emotionally share in similar sorrows and joys. And it is the last phrase that is the most important, because it means that we have openly listened to them to learn what makes them happy and to understand what makes them feel distress. It is then that we will have leveled the playing field. It is then that we know we have built a sense of trust. It is then that we become friends. It is then that we are truly treating our neighbors as ourselves!