In keeping with my recent mindfulness about being a good example to others, and to deliberately choosing how I want to live my life, I have been thinking about the significance of being seen as a representative of some group. Two recent examples come to mind, but I will start with my experience as one of six American students at an international school, some ten years ago. I never gave much thought then to how I acted, and scoffed that people should understand that we are all individuals and not weigh us down with the baggage of acting as a representative of an entire country. How could I, a then-seventeen-year-old from California, represent a country of 300 million? So, in my adolescent surliness and self-centeredness, I did my own thing and never gave it any thought.
Fast forward to now, ten years later, and I still have vague feelings of discontent when I think of people from Malaysia, because my Malaysian roommate made common life, let's say, challenging. (Let's leave aside for now the fact that I'm sure I made life challenging at times, too!) And I still get warm, fuzzy feelings when I think of people from Singapore, Colombia, Denmark, Canada, Lesotho, etc...because the students I met from those countries became some of my best friends.
Is this fair? Not really. And I shudder to think of the impression I gave my fellow students of Americans -- though thankfully, I think my failings were balanced out by some of the other American students there. At least I wasn't the only one! My point is that it is natural to base an opinion of a group on whatever information one has. Sometimes, that information comes only from one person -- a representative -- and even if the person forming the opinion knows full well that an entire country or group of people cannot be fairly judged by just one person, at least some instinctive feeling will generally remain.
Someone, I don't know who, said to be careful the way you live your life, for you may be the only Bible a person ever reads. I think of this often when I hear of Christians being hateful. Will people recognize us by our love? Or by our hate?
A few weeks ago, I was at a gym class, wearing a NorCal SusCon t-shirt. I attended the first annual Northern California Suspension Convention a few years ago; it was an occasion for people to engage in body suspension and meet others also interested in the same thing. Body suspension is heavily related to the body modification world, and it is a pretty fringe activity. Some would say it's downright weird. In any case, I know that whenever I wear the shirt, which has logos for various piercing shops and hook manufacturers, people may ask questions and I should be prepared to give intelligent, thoughtful answers. That day, a man who was also in the class and was probably in his 50s, asked me what a "SusCon" was. I answered him, then he asked, "Oh, that's like an S&M thing, right?" It's not -- though there's no reason it couldn't be -- so I explained that it was more related to the piercing world. To be honest, I did feel a bit uncomfortable at his S&M question -- but he was asking from a place of honest curiosity, not any malicious intent. And when I step forth into the public sphere wearing a shirt like that, I have an obligation to respect the questions of the people I encounter. One of my favorite professors in grad school continually inveighs against obscurantism of any kind. So I have to entertain people's legitimate questions. Otherwise, how will they learn? What would have happened if I had thrown out a flip answer, or treated this man like he was doing something wrong by asking questions? He would likely have come away from our interaction feeling like people who engage in body suspension are pretty rude, or weird, or just not very welcoming. That is not the face I want to put on the body modification community.
Similarly, I received a message yesterday from one of my Facebook friends, who had noticed that I was recently confirmed into the Catholic faith. He asked if I would mind sharing with him my decision to become Catholic, why I chose the Catholic Church, and something about my reasoning and faith journey. He ended his message with a remark to the effect that he knows we are relatively casual acquaintances and that religion is a highly personal matter, so he would understand if I did not feel comfortable sharing that information with him.
Of course I will be happy to share that information with him! (Probably after final exams, when I have time to sit down and write a proper, well-thought-out email.) If I believe in the value of the Catholic Church enough to want to become a fully participating member, I should darn well be able and willing to explain it intelligently to people. Who knows, maybe it will make enough sense to him that he, too, will seek to learn more about the Church, and maybe even become a member himself. Or, maybe it will inspire him to learn more about Christ; or God and religion in general. At the very least, he will hopefully come away with the impression that the Catholic Church has many things of great value, and will think more positively of its members. If I don't respond in an intelligent way, maybe he will think the Church is irrational and only for unthinking people.
Be attentive. Be intelligent. Ask questions to grow in understanding. If I am called to do all these things, so too must I respond to others positively when they do the same.