yearning to understand

seeking the soft

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Soft or hard. Black or white. Right or wrong.

It seems that, as humans, we desire things to be one thing or another. We want to believe that absolute clarity and absolute certainty exist. We want to believe that people are either one thing or another, that answers are either right or they are wrong, and that people remain the same indefinitely. We seem to think that there is great security in believing in this dualistic static type of a world where there are two clearly separated categories: Good or Bad. Always. End of story.

But life presents us with a much different reality – that there is much gray in this world. Things shift, people change, and that which we had thought to be solid may eventually crumble, and we are left wondering what to make of it. We see things from our own perspectives, we judge ideas and people based on our own interpretations, and we can all read a simple sentence such as:

“I never said he did that.”

and understand it in at least six different ways depending on where we put our emphasis. Try it. Say each one of these sentences out loud, emphasizing the word in bold, and then tell me that each sentence wouldn’t be heard and understood differently.

I never said he did that.

I never said he did that.

I never said he did that.

I never said he did that.

I never said he did that.

I never said he did that.

See what I mean?

We each come to every moment of our lives with a different level of consciousness and a different grasp of our own self-awareness. We move through this world with our own ideas and beliefs about how the world works. Our background experiences and the culture in which we live have influenced how we see the world, how we see others, and how we see ourselves. There are over seven billion (7,000,000,000) people on this earth. Seven billion life experiences. Seven billion ways that the world has been experienced. Seven billion interpretations.

And then we wonder why we struggle to agree on things.

Take a look at this image:

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Now take a look at this one:

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They look different, right? Are they two different images of two different leaves taken at two different times? Or are they two different images of the same leaf? They look completely different – one leaf is deep dark red while the other is light brown, and the background is different. Yet they ARE the same leaf. The leaf didn’t move. I did. One photograph was taken about 30 seconds before the other. The subject didn’t change – I did. How it appeared shifted based on where I placed myself and how I chose to see it.

There are an infinite number of other ways I could have photographed this leaf – from above, from the side, from the other side, from an angle, from underneath the deck. Each would give a completely different perspective, a completely different view of the same thing.

It reminds me of the tale of the blind people who were being told what an elephant was by feeling it. However, one felt only the trunk, another only the tail, another only a leg, yet another felt a tusk, another its back side. They were told, “This is an elephant.” Afterward, when asked to describe what an elephant is, their descriptions could not have been more different. Was one person’s description of the elephant more accurate or inaccurate than another’s? No, they were each describing the same exact subject, and to each of them, the description they gave was their reality. Was each experience different, and did they come to different conclusions? Absolutely. But they did not have the full story.

We do this with people all the time. How often do we see one version of them, one experience of them, and think we know who they are and how they are? How often have we been on the receiving end of the same? How often have others had one experience of us, and then they judge us entirely based on that one thing? Many times, we’re left thinking, “But wait…wait…there’s more to this story than what you’re seeing!”

Exactly.

There’s more to EVERY story than what we see.

A couple of years ago, I was introduced to the idea that people, in general, are doing the best they know how to do. Period. I’ve been working on living into that idea, and I’ll admit that this last year is testing me. How can this be? How does one even begin to reconcile this naïve notion with all the violence and hate that seems to be so prevalent in our world? How could we even consider the notion that someone’s “best” involves yelling “Get out of my country!” before shooting two people, killing one. How can someone’s “best” be a premeditated idea of pounding at least 40 four-inch nails into tree roots and logs leaving a 1/2 inch to an inch of the point exposed at an angle with an intention to impale runners and walkers on a trail in the woods of North Carolina? How can someone’s “best” be seen in the bomb threats & cemetery vandalism that is happening within the Jewish community?

It seems illogical. We (I) don’t want to believe it.

And yet.

We don’t have the whole story.

Author and theologian Parker Palmer once said,

“Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.”

There are a lot of people suffering out there right now.

We have likely heard that people who were abused as children often end up becoming the abuser. We know that mental illness plagues a significant portion of the population. We know that people who live in a state of powerlessness and oppression long enough will resort to extreme measures in an attempt to feel some sort of power again. We know that extended periods of isolation and feelings of not being accepted can make people vulnerable to accept any type of belonging when it is offered – whether it is a certain clique at school, a political party, a neighborhood gang, or even a group of neo-Nazi skinheads.

Paul Rusesabagina was the hotel owner whose life was portrayed in the movie Hotel Rwanda. He is credited with saving hundreds of lives during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. In his book, An Ordinary Man, Rusesabagina tells of being criticized after the genocide was over for being too kind to the generals and the other militia who came to his hotel during the height of the killings. During the violence, he continued to serve and be respectful to these men who were ordering and committing horrific acts of brutality. His response to this has stayed with me for years.

He kept seeking the soft.

He kept seeking the soft. In describing this, Rusesabagina referred to the Nazis who were able to work at the concentration camps overseeing the gas chambers during the day – and then could return to their homes at night to play games with their kids or put a record of Bach on the turntable. Rusesabagina tried (sometimes with lesser or more degree of success) to see people – not in clear categories of black and white, good or evil – but in degrees of hard or soft. He believed that neither hard nor soft was ever in complete control of one’s actions.

“Take the colonel: He had come fresh from a world of machetes, road gangs, and random death and yet was able to have a civilized conversation with a hotel manager over a glass of beer and let himself be talked out of committing another murder.” –Paul Rusesabagina

As he served these men who were committing such atrocities, Rusesabagina continued to seek the soft within them, believing that somewhere, someplace, the soft did exist.

I’ll admit. I struggle with this. Particularly in these times where there seems to be so much hate and violence. There are moments, days, and weeks where I do not want to attempt to seek the soft in those who are committing such blatantly hateful acts. Yet, as described in my previous blog post (the gratitude challenge) the seeking of gratitude in the moments that are difficult aren’t about denying the feelings of despair and overwhelm that we may be experiencing. It’s about being open to the possibility that gratitude and despair can be held in the same space, at the same time.

Perhaps it’s the same with seeking the soft. Seeking the soft is not about saying that the hateful behavior should not be condemned. It’s not about telling people who are destroying property or harming others that what they are doing is acceptable and that there will be no consequences. What I think it’s about is attempting to hold the possibility that what we see from one perspective may not be the full story. The horrific violence may only be the tail of the elephant, and we’re missing the rest of the body – the trunk, the tusks, the legs. Behind the unimaginable horrors played out daily in the media may be the stories of people who experienced some unbelievable trauma we can’t even imagine. Behind the controversial and seemingly crazy view that someone holds may be a story that can offer greater understanding.

Don’t get me wrong. This is challenging, seemingly impossible stuff. I think we really want to be able to say someone is pure evil. We want to think that evil is this thing “out there” that doesn’t apply to us at all. That those we deem as “evil” must be less than human, completely different from us, so we can speak of and treat them differently from how we treat people “like us.” Certainly we wouldn’t harbor any of that bad within us, would we?

Would we?

No comment.

If we keep seeking only the hard in others, we’ll find all the evidence in the world to support our viewpoint. But what if we also choose to seek the soft? What if we would choose to pick ourselves up and view the leaf person from another side? How would our own beliefs about others shift if we opened up to the possibility that beyond the hard, there is, perhaps, a glimpse of soft buried deep within, often hidden from view, but there nonetheless? How would we respond if others did the same for us – if others refused to believe that the hard they saw was all there was – and were willing to keep seeking the soft that is buried within us as well?

If it’s true that great shadows only exist because there is also great light, must it also be true that great hardness can exist because there is also great softness? I want to believe this is true.

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shari miller

©2017 shari miller photography (all words & photographs are my own unless otherwise noted)

 

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