My mom had a neighbor friend who spent most mornings sipping coffee at our yellow linoleum kitchen table. They often disagreed about things and occasionally separated after minor skirmishes, but eventually returned to the table for coffee and chatter.
I learned an important lesson from that neighbor once. Having returned home on break from my first year in seminary, over coffee at that same table, she casually asked if I thought she would be reunited with her deceased husband in heaven. While I had no insider information on the subject, I ventured an opinion. She immediately started sobbing. What I thought ran counter to her hopes.
I had challenged her sense of reality without even meaning to, and she was crushed. It upset me too, because I knew I had no more information about what happens on the other side of death than she did. Why had I acted otherwise? Challenging someone’s sense of reality is one of the harshest things we can do.
I learned the same thing with a vengeance while working in a mental health unit. Challenging the facticity of someone’s hallucinations is a recipe for escalating anxiety, rage, and even violence. Later, working in a church surrounded by a large homeless population, that training came in handy. It was during the early years in which we emptied residential mental health hospitals without programs or housing to compensate for it, and then were somehow surprised when hundreds and thousands ended up on the streets with nowhere to go or live.
The church attracted a lot of people, including Minnie Mouse. He was a mountain of a man who often went shirtless with a chest and stomach as hairy as his beard and the nest of mane on top his head. While he claimed to be Minnie, he could be as gentle and conversational as his appearance was wild and intimidating. But when his reality was challenged he could also turn fierce and even violent. There were a number of characters like that who frequented the church campus as a refuge from the street. I learned to embrace each of them as they wished to be known, and how to affirm the reality they articulated without giving up my own.
My point is, we all occupy a sense of reality that is a complex composition of beliefs, assumptions, and interpreted experiences. We imagine this is what the world is, and yet ours is only a perception. We have a piece, not the whole. When someone or something challenges our perception we either freak out, retreat, or open ourselves to questioning our perception and perhaps changing it. We might do all three.
Who hosts people with very different perceptions of reality any more? In my experience, religious congregations can do it if their culture welcomes openness and diversity of thought. Classrooms may also, assuming a culture of inquisitiveness and diversity of opinions. But otherwise, where are there such safe gathering places for people to come together and both challenge and embrace a variety of perceptions?
If we stay in our own thought-silos we harden and become brittle, freaking out when our perceptions are challenged. Instead, we need places where we can rub shoulders with those who see the world differently, and get curious about them and what they are seeing. That is how we change and grow.