Please receive her, and she will tell you some new things. Let her tell her story without interrupting her, and give close attention, and you will see she has got the lever of truth, that God helps her to pry where but few can.
—letter from “HLB” to churches in Hartford, Connecticut, commending Sojourner Truth and carried by her as an introduction
This quote popped up in my morning devotions recently, and it brought to mind a lesson I learned a while back:
Whenever a critical mass of people begin to say “some new things” about their life experience, and those new things don’t fit any version of reality you’ve ever known, the useful reaction is to listen—long, deeply, with full attention and no rush to judgment.
We’ve all heard “some new things” in recent years and decades. White people like me have heard that the daily experience of being black in America is unlike anything we know. Men have heard that millions of women have suffered sexual assault or harassment. We’ve heard that many people do not fit into traditional categories of sexual and gender identity. We’ve heard that a lot of folks in the U.S. heartland have felt dissed by coastal elites for decades, and they’ve had enough.
It can be sorely tempting to dismiss these stories. They challenge our most basic assumptions about “the way things are,” and we build big chunks of our lives on those assumptions. If we let these stories upset our applecarts, who knows what else we might have to rethink, and how much more of our lives we have to disrupt?
Without a doubt, this listening can be massively disruptive. But the alternative—continuing automatically with the status quo—fails on two counts. For one, how do we know our assumptions are accurate? Yes, it’s worth taking them seriously if many generations of our ancestors believed them, but that doesn’t make them absolutely true for all time. Many generations of our ancestors believed that slavery was OK and the sun revolved around the earth, too. If we hadn’t listened to those who spoke otherwise, we may never have overcome those errors.
For another, dismissing these stories out of hand comes with a steep cost. We are saying to the people claiming “some new things” that a fundamental part of their human experience doesn’t exist. It’s hard to imagine a more effective way to cut ourselves off from them. This does not feel like the compassion to which our ethical codes (not to mention God) call us.
Our assumptions, in the end, may be accurate, or they may not be. We will never know unless we listen to these “new things” and the people who give them voice. We may find that they have “got the lever of truth, that God helps [them] to pry where but few can.”
How do you deal with hearing “new things”? Does this make sense to you, or do you see it differently? I’d love to hear your thoughts.