About 21 years ago I was in South Africa on a mission. This was a historic period of time for South Africa; the preparation for the first election which would allow all races the right to vote. It was an exciting and frightening time to be there. There were delusional promises of money and power instantly. Some people believed them. Other people developed escape plans. Family after family we visited shared their real concerns and fears and hopes. Although I had learned to love South Africa, I couldn’t imagine how they would proceed peacefully and successfully through such a huge transition, with such incredible expectations. How do you get people together who seem so very different? How do people recover from something as all encompassingly painful as apartheid?
I read in the Book of Mormon of a time when three different groups of people were seeking asylum with another small, but stable group of people. Some of them had been enemies. The king of the small group of people was named Mosiah. He gathered the record of each group of people and gathered all of the people together. He read aloud the record of each group, or had it read aloud. The people listened. They responded with empathy. They cried at the hard parts of history, they rejoiced at the wonderful events. They were grateful that these unique groups of people were together and safe now.
As a 22-year-old I remember wondering what it would be like if each group of people in South Africa could listen to each other with empathy. Really listen. Not with defensiveness, not wondering what it would cost, not judging and assuming…but listening with empathy. Would they see each other differently? Would they interact differently? Would they govern differently? What would happen if two people could really listen and understand each other?
The last few weeks have brought this memory to mind. It feels like families, countries and friends are feeling a bit of pressure tearing them apart. Do you feel it?
Facebook and Twitter and the internet and texting could help. We have potential for instant contact, but we don’t seem to have gotten better at really communicating. How do we most often use this technology? We often hear only 100 characters of the story and we think we know. We think the greatest gift we can offer is not to empathize and understand, but to judge or fix. We offer what worked for us, our favorite multilevel marketing product, our opinion, and our judgment…then we move on.
It’s hard to stop and listen. It takes time. It involves opening your heart and mind. It’s messy. It challenges your assumptions. It’s humbling. It takes more than 30 seconds. It might involve just sitting with another person while they cry. That is a painful privilege.
What if, after reading a Facebook status we don’t agree with, what if we try to understand the other side? What if the next time you see something or notice something that drives you crazy, you take time to consider another side? What if we assume that most people are doing the best they can? What if we really try to figure out what another person, even someone who voted for the other side, thinks and feels? We spend longer building and shoring up our soap box than we do understanding the issue. Just maybe our purpose in life isn’t to convince people we are right…but to love people as they are.
South Africa struggles. The initial transition was remarkably smooth Thanks to Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk. Two very different men. They both have their flaws. Mandela’s early life was marked with violence. De Klerk’s was elected as a part of the very conservative National Party that had established apartheid. Together they ended apartheid and conducted the only smooth transition in all of Africa from white to black leadership. That is astounding. If these two men can work together, can understand each other, can learn from each other, why can’t we?
Britt grew up in a family of six brothers and one sister and gained a bonus sister later. She camped in the High Sierras, canoed down the Colorado, and played volleyball at Brigham Young University. She then served a mission to South Africa. With all of her time in the gym and the mountains and South Africa, she was totally prepared to become the mother of 2 sons and soon to be 9 daughters. By totally prepared she means willing to love them and muddle through everything else in a partially sleepless state. She is mostly successful at figuring out how to keep the baby clothed, or at least diapered, though her current toddler is challenging this skill. She feels children naturally love to learn and didn’t want to disrupt childhood curiosity with worksheets and school bells. She loves to play in the dirt, read books, go on adventures, watch her children discover new things, and mentor her children. Her oldest child is currently at a community college and her oldest son is going to high school at a public school. She loves to follow her children in their unique paths and interests. She loves to write because, unlike the laundry and the dishes, writing stays done. Whenever someone asks her how she does it all she wonders what in the world they think she’s doing.