I found myself sitting on a bus that was making its way across the Paraguayan countryside, bumping along westbound toward the capital of Asunción. Next to me in the window seat was a middle-aged Guarani woman with two children sleeping peacefully on her lap. The sun was setting in the distance. We watched it together, as it slowly sunk beneath that red-clay field.
The day before had been Paraguay’s Independence Day. Each town we had visited was strangely cloaked in red, white, and blue (the colors of the stripes on their national flag) as if it were the Fourth of July—a reminder that two countries that couldn’t be more different were more alike than its people had ever dared to imagine. And as dusk fell upon us on that bus, our countries’ shared colors blended together in the sky, as a violet horizon beckoned us inward. We could not speak a word to one another because of the language gap; but no words needed to be spoken. We couldn’t have been more different; but we were one, mystically connected. Traveling to the same city. Watching the same sunset. United under the splendor of creation, in the very intimacy of our souls.
In that moment I seemed to understand more clearly Thomas Merton’s words from his mystical experience on the corner of 4th and Walnut in downtown Louisville: that if we could only see each other as we really are then “the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other other.” I wanted to worship the Christ that was animating this loving mother! As a visitor in that foreign place, her beautiful world, the moment seemed to re-affirm one of the main spiritual lessons I had learned in the years following my deconstruction of my previous rigid religious paradigm: that I need those whose stories are most different from my own for my own salvation and awakening.
These days I find myself returning often to that moment on the bus in Paraguay. It is a reminder to me that the starting point, on a spirit/soul level, among each person who my path crosses, is connectedness. An awareness of this connectedness gives birth to a posture of listening, inspiring within me a desire to enter in to the stories of others, even those whose stories are most different from my own background, beliefs, or experiences.
If each person’s story is a country that I have an opportunity to explore, I do not want to be a mere tourist, keeping my distance, refraining from entering into the culture before me, pointing and watching, but never daring to encounter what is unfamiliar. To quote Merton once more, in his letter to the Nicaraguan essayist Pablo Antonio Cuadra, he writes critically of the posture of the stereotypical tourist: “The tourist never meets anyone, never encounters anyone, never finds the brother in the stranger. This is his tragedy…We must, then, see the truth in the stranger, and the truth we see must be a newly living truth, not just a projection of a dead conventional idea of our own—a projection of our own self upon the stranger.”
Movements of hate and oppression should certainly be fought against with rigor, but the truth is that most people are well-intentioned and just have different stories, hold different views, or are passionate about different ideas. Most of the time we build walls or fail to listen simply because we are controlled by our fear of the other—whether that is race, language, worldview, or experience. We are, in short, baffled by the stranger.
Merton writes earlier in the same letter: “To a Christian who believes in the mystery of the Incarnation…All men are to be seen and treated as Christ. Failure to do this, the Lord tells us, involves condemnation for disloyalty to the most fundamental of revealed truths.…It was certainly right that Christian Europe should bring Christ to the Indians of Mexico and the Andes, as well as to the Hindus and the Chinese; but where they failed was their inability to encounter Christ already potentially present in the Indians, the Hindus, and the Chinese.”
In an age of polarization, where moral outrage seems to be the default posture, where everyone seems to be picking sides and furiously projecting their own opinions, where there is a general fear of the other motivating personal posture and political policy, maybe starting with our connectedness can inspire us to become curious explorers and compassionate listeners instead of selfish tourists and violent conquerors.