Communication across cultures is hard work

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Last night at the book signing—Forty Days Alone in Thailand, Jesus, the Buddha, Thai Culture and My Self--at Counter Coffee we talked a lot about how hard it is to function in cultures different than our own.  I mean really immersing ourselves in another culture including its religion, diving into the deep end of the cultural pool.  Eating dinner at a Thai restaurant may be a multicultural experience but it's really wading in the shallow end of the pool with the water up to your ankles.  No need of a flotation device.

Many who came to the event are experienced in multicultural living.  Ted is married to a Thai woman and has been to Thailand maybe ten times.  Elizabeth and Charles were born in East Africa.  Mac and Harriette were two of the first African Americans to move to Oak Park years ago.  These are people who know what it means to sink or swim in the deep end of a cultural pool.

That experience got me thinking about an interview I had last Wednesday with Rabbi Max Weiss and Cantor Julie Yugend-Green at the Oak Park Temple.  The interview was for a story I'm writing about the High Holy Days and repentance.  The reason I started this post with the multicultural things is because often when I interview people from a different faith tradition than mine, I discover that they look at life, at reality through different lenses than I do.

That's what happened when the three of us got talking about repentance.  They looked at repentance differently than I had.  Rabbi Weiss said that this year he was going to talk about repentance as flowing out of gratitude.  "One way of thinking about Rosh Hashanah,"  he said, "is that it is primarily gratitude.  Thankfulness supposed to evoke these feelings in us of gratitude for the world in which we live and our place in the world.  It's also awakening.   We hear the shofar calls.  The blast of the ram's horn is supposed to awaken our souls, to turn toward repentance.

I'd never thought of it that way.  Cantor Yugend-Green commented that repentance is hard work.  I'd never it that way either.  I always thought of repentance is the result of feeling guilty about something, but she was talking more about repairing the wrong that had been than trying to conjure up one feeling or another.

I really enjoy being able to see things from a new perspective.

Talking with them also revealed to me that I wasn't articulating some of the things I believed very well.  We got talking about forgiveness.  After I tried to describe some of what I believed about forgiveness, they responded in a way that showed me that they hadn't understood what I meant.  Now I could blame them for being dense, or I could take responsibility and realize that I had to find different language to convey what I was trying to communicate.  I realized that it was the later.

Cantor Yugend-Green said that repentance is hard work.  I would add that so is communication.  Trying to dialog with folks who see the world differently than I do is a challenge.  I think that's why a pastor in Thailand named Bantoon did his Ph.D. thesis on dialog with Buddhists.  His premise is that Christians have been largely unsuccessful in their attempt to attract Thais to Christianity because they use terms like "sin" and "grace" which are not part of the Buddhist vocabulary.  It's not that they are spiritually dense.  The problem is that we are using language which grows out of a world view that they don't share.

Many of the people who came to the book signing know all about that kind of communication challenge.

 

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