Sunday, March 14, 2010

Pride and Prejudice

I stepped in it today. I offended and insulted a friend - a new friend whom I like and respect and have been enjoying getting to know. I was trying to make a joke. Sort of. But really I was trying to get away with knocking a certain religion I’ve always enjoyed railing against. In most rooms a conversation about ‘those wackos’ is sure to illicit laughter and agreement.

My friend was looking over an apartment rental contract and was struck by the fact that it asked for a potential tenant’s religion. “That’s weird. Isn’t that weird?” She turned to me.

“Yeah. And I think it’s illegal. Discrimination,” I answered. “Still I can see from their point of view. If I had a place to rent I would want to make sure I wasn’t renting to…” For a moment I paused, reaching for a fill-in-the-blank of a comic, commonly-held dislike. I scrolled through possible punch lines and finally settled on my old stand-by. The word hung there just out of my mouth like a toxic bubble.

Her smile faded. “I am one, Heidi,” she said as she turned back to her desk.

For a moment I thought – I hoped – she was joking. I knew in my heart she wasn’t. I managed to stop myself from blurting “but you can’t be; you’re smart…” I scanned her desk for their symbols: nothing. Was she really? Oh dear. What had I just done?

It’s an interesting comic compulsion to know when you’re in a ‘safe room’ and can make fun of one group or another without getting in trouble. We all do it. Just as we all generalize and rely on stereotypes to shorthand us through the day. Yes, they can be inaccurate and cruel but on the other hand, stereotypes often exist for a reason. Don’t they?

I gingerly stood up and went to my next meeting and she went to hers. As I walked down the hall I ran through next steps. I could play it off as a joke. I could apologize. I could explain my point of view. I could even try to convert her; explain all the ways in which it had been proven that her religion was absurd and hurtful. I could never talk to her again because hadn’t I vowed never to have any of them in my life?

‘That’s it then,’ I thought as I mentally prepared myself to let go of the friendship. ‘We just won’t be friends anymore.’ It would be awkward as we share an office some days but it would just have to be. I trudged the last few steps to my meeting with a heavy heart. I was going to miss her.

I couldn’t focus on the meeting. I kept thinking about how deeply I had hurt my friend. Because she was a friend, not just a stereotype or punch line. I was mortified. I felt for a moment like I was living a scene from “Crash” where one is faced with the prejudices they thought were OK to have. And I was an ass. Then the bigger picture opened up to me. What if she’d been a member of another religion? Granted I’m not a fan of organized religion in general but as I mentally replaced her religion with others as the punch line in my joke, I cringed. Bashing someone’s religion was something mean people did. I was a prejudiced, judgmental ass.

I slunk back to the office after my meeting resolved to apologize. There was no way I could play it off like a joke or pretend it hadn’t happened. I was going to have to face the fact that I had insulted my friend’s belief system. I felt raw and exposed.

She walked in and I didn’t wait. I apologized whole-heartedly for having been a jerk. She smiled and said she understood. She often got negative reactions to her religion. “That’s why I don’t go waving a flag about it. It’s just what works for me.”

And then I saw I’d been given an opportunity. “There are a ton of prejudices and beliefs about it out there. I’d like to know the truth.” I went on to explain how, over the course of my life, I’d had close relationships or friendships with people of just about every major religion on the planet but I’d never met anyone from hers and I wanted to understand. I genuinely meant it and she knew it. She told me how she’d come to make her choice and said she’d love to talk to me more about her religion, not in a proselytizing way but an informational one. We made a coffee date.

I can’t say I’ll come out the other end of our conversation praising her religion but I am looking forward to the chance to shed my own prejudice. Even deeper, I am looking forward to getting another human’s point of view on a subject dear to her heart. If I can understand, then it follows that I will respect and honor even if I don’t agree.

So my friend surprisingly of a religion I’ve always ridiculed will allow me to become a better person. In giving up that punch-line, I will also get to work harder for my comedy and therefore grow as a wit. I am humbled by her generosity and thankful for her friendship. God knows who else she’s saving me from offending.

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