I remember when I was in the second grade, I met a weird kid in another class who seemed terrifically hyperactive, had a propensity for getting in trouble, and could not tolerate standing outside the locus of attention. Quite a few of my friends knew him (we’ll call him J.), but I didn’t really see the point in instigating conversation—I was, after all, almost a diametric opposite of this kid, and why would I want him to disrupt my time being self-righteous and calculated? He might dirty up my button-up.
But, one day during a tornado-drill, we were shepherded out into the hallway and I found myself wedged between J. and the grimy underside of a water fountain. Given little choice, I actually ended up talking to him and—marvel of marvels—we hit it off. J. was to become one of my best friends, and for the next eight years, we would be almost inseparable. I don’t know what it is that makes us want to define ourselves against others—all I could see in J. was everything I wasn’t, for instance—rather than simply talking to them in an attempt to know who they really are (as opposed to our constructed versions of them), but it yields no benefit.
Tuesday night (Oct. 26th), I had the wonderful opportunity of hosting/facilitating an Interfaith panel discussion here on campus. We had a diverse panel comprised of Jessica Cavanagh, Program Director at Hillel, Fr. Tim Hallett, Rector of Chapel of St. John the Divine, Dr. Rini Mehta, Visiting Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature, Rachel Storm, co-founder of Interfaith Atheists, Agnostics & Humanists, and Muhammad Abdullah, Muslim Community Activist, who each discussed what their respective traditions said about social activism and service. During the hour-long discussion, followed by a few audience questions, the Murphy Lounge in the YMCA on Wright Street became a location much like that of the water fountain that day in my second grade year—it allowed people of dissimilar beliefs to talk to one another, and the result was enlightening.
As the night wore on and the panelists opened up to one another (and to the audience), all present were treated to a great discussion that moved from simple citations of scripture to well informed criticisms and back again. By coming together in conversation in dialogues like this one, we can develop a mutual respect for one another underpinned by our similarities, rather than the (at times, more natural) means of defining ourselves by our differences.