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Remembering to care for others, even when you don't agree

Walt Shelton
Special to the American-Statesman
Walt Shelton is a part-time professor at Baylor Law School and an environmental attorney in Austin. He leads small discussion groups in association with Highland Park Baptist Church in Austin.

As a child, when I was frustrated about something or in a bad mood, I would often reply to my parents' questions: "I don't care."

Invariably, my mother would respond: "Honey, let's not say that.  You should care about everything and everyone."  As an adult, when I slip toward my "not caring" mode, I hear my mom's words as if she were in the room with me. Indeed, she is with me, at a minimum through the lasting imprint of her life-model and words of wisdom. 

Like everyone, I hopefully anticipate getting an effective and safe vaccine for COVID-19.  Wouldn't it be great if we developed a vaccine to eliminate hatred and discrimination and replace them with understanding, compassion and love for everyone?  

Unfortunately, there is no immediate "cure" to bring our factious country and world together.  Nevertheless, we can choose to make this transition. It requires intention, hard work and time. 

Without question, the time is now for us to start. Truly "caring" about making and actively living such a repentant "turning" from guarded tribalism to respect, tolerance and inclusiveness is our first step. 

What does it mean to truly "care" about other people who differ from us in any way?  Caring is multifaceted. At its heart, we start to care about dissolving judgment and prejudice to come together peacefully by: (1) actually and empathetically listening to others, and (2) finding and emphasizing common ground instead of accentuating differences. 

Listening is an art, and sometimes, a lost one.  Listening to others takes effort, resolve and practice when we aspire to transform it into a habit. 

In my Christian tradition, the author of New Testament Book of James instructs his readers: "You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger" (James 1:19). 

The apocryphal Book of Sirach (part of the Catholic Bible but not the Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament) is full of wise sayings related to the importance of listening.  Examples include: "Be quick to hear, but deliberate in answering" (Sirach 5:11); "If you love to listen you will gain knowledge, and if you pay attention you will become wise" (6:33), and "Before you speak, learn" (18:19A).

In a nutshell, listening involves learning about and appreciating another's perspective, respectfully not interrupting, paying mindful and open attention to what someone else says, and then pausing and deliberately breathing to relax before you respond. 

In sum, listening is part of peaceful and constructive dialogue and other communication toward tolerance and understanding. 

Importantly, our goal in faith-related and other dialogue with persons from different traditions and walks of life should not be to "save" them by convincing them to consent that our way of believing or seeing things is correct. Rather, our objectives should include understanding, respect, humility and learning.

In addition to talking with one another and prioritizing authentic listening, we should endeavor to find commonalities with others. In fact, this should be a primary goal of respectful dialogue.  

Regarding interfaith and intra-faith differences of opinion, as well as simply extremes of political and other perspectives between people regardless of faith affiliation, we can create as well as find action based common ground.  How about simply doing good for others, such as working together to help the sick, hungry, poor, oppressed and others suffering or in need?  This can be a starting and ending point and a key to mutual "salvation" devoid of talk or advocacy of opinion. 

Practically, what might our common efforts look like?  The possibilities and opportunities are seemingly endless. Some examples include joining together and serving a meal to the hungry, collecting blankets and warm clothes for winter months, writing friendly letters as pen pals to lonely prisoners, mentoring children who need help and positive role models, and adopting rescue dogs or cats (love of animals creates strong bonds). 

With the multiplicity of needs around us all, acting together to practically care about and for others has a healing effect on group-based and other fractured relationships. Differences in belief or opinion can take a back seat in terms of priorities.  It might transform the nature of further dialogue with one another, making it easier to live together with tolerance and respect by working together to do good. 

Walt Shelton is a part-time professor at Baylor Law School, where he has taught for 30 years, and an environmental attorney in Austin.  He leads faith- and life-related discussion groups in association with the Church at Highland Park. His book, "The Daily Practice of Life: Practical Reflections Toward Meaningful Living" (CrossLink 2020) is available on waltshelton.com.