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Posted April 27, 2010

Forgiving our Differences

By Ron Rolheiser

In her the first volume of her autobiography, Under My Skin, Doris Lessing, shares this story: During her marriage to Gottfried Lessing, it became evident to both of them at a point that they were simply incompatible as a married couple and that they would eventually have to seek a divorce. However, for practical reasons, they decided to live together, as friends, until they could both move to England, at which time they would file for a divorce. Their marriage was finished but unexpectedly their friendship began to grow. They had accepted their incompatibility as a fact and as something that didn't call for resentment from either of them. Why be angry at someone just because she feels and thinks differently than we do?

One night, lying in their separate beds in the same room, both smoking and unable to sleep, Gottfried said to her: This kind of incompatibility is more of a misfortune than a crime. That's a mature insight: It's not a crime or a sin to be incompatible, it's only unfortunate.

Would that in our daily lives we could appropriate that truth because there is an important emotional, intellectual, moral, and religious challenge contained in it. We spend too much time and energy angry and frustrated with each other over something that basically we cannot control or change. Our differences, however much they may frustrate us and tax our patience at times, are not a crime, a sin, or indeed (most times) even anyone's fault. We don't need to blame someone, be angry at someone, or resent someone because he or she is different than we are, no matter how much those differences separate us, frustrate us, and try our patience and understanding.

We shouldn't blame and resent each other for being different. Yet that is what we invariably do. We resent others, especially those closest to us in our families, in our churches, and in our places of work, because they are different than we are, as if they were to blame for those differences. Funny, how we rarely reverse that and blame ourselves. But generally we blame someone or something. Incompatibility within families, church circles, and professional circles, rarely helps produce respect and friendship, as it did between Gottfried and Doris Lessing. The opposite is true. Our differences generally become a source of division, anger, resentment, bitterness, and recrimination. We positively blame the other person for the incompatibility as if it was a moral fault or a willful separation.

Of course, sometimes, that can be the case. Infidelity or even simple laziness and lack of effort in a relationship can also eat away at harmony and insert insurmountable obstacles to understanding and compatibility. An affair with someone who isn't your partner can help trigger incompatibility in a marriage pretty quickly. In such a case, it wouldn't be as true to say: "This is just a misfortune." There is someone to blame. However most of the differences that separate us are, in the words of Gottfried Lessing, mostly just a misfortune, not a crime.

Who is to blame? Who's at fault? If anyone is to be blamed, let's blame nature and God.

We can blame nature for its prodigal character, for its overwhelming abundance, for its staggering variety, for its billions of species, for its bewildering differences within the same species, and for its proclivity to give us novelty and color beyond imagination. We can also blame God for placing us in a universe whose magnitude, diversity, and complexity befuddles both the intellect and the imagination. Our universe is still growing both in size and in variation, with change as itís only constant.

God and nature, it would appear, do not believe in simplicity, uniformity, blandness, and sameness. We aren't born into this world off conveyor-belts like cars coming off a factory line. The infinite combination of accidents, circumstance, chance, and providence that conspire to make up our specific and individual DNA is too complex to ever be calculated or even concretely imagined.

But blame isn't the proper verb here, even if in our frustrations with our differences we feel that we need to blame someone. God and nature shouldn't be blamed for providing us with so much richness, for setting us into a world with so much color and variety, and for making our own personalities so deep and complex. How boring life would be if we weren't forever confronted with novelty, variety, and difference. How boring the world would be if everything were the same color, if all flowers were of one kind, and if all personalities were the same as ours. We would pay a high price for the easy peace and understanding that would come from that uniformity.

Gottfried Lessing was an agnostic and a Marxist, not an easy friend to Christianity. But we (who vow ourselves by our baptism to understanding, empathy, forgiveness, and peace-making) should be strongly and healthily challenged by his insight and understanding: It's not a sin or a crime to be incompatible, it's only unfortunate!