• Brenda Kress

From My Chair

Have you ever thought about how where we sit at a table can really effect how we see things? Imagine you have never seen a ketchup bottle before and someone puts one in the middle of the table. You see a bunch of words and ingredients and nutrient information. In that moment, a picture of what a ketchup bottle looks like has been formed. Imagine your surprise when later, in a conversation with the person who had sat across the table from you, you mention how the ketchup bottle label really didn’t have pizazz for you. Your companion says “Really? I just love that huge, ripe tomato on the label as it reminds me of my grandma’s garden.” And you say “There isn’t a tomato on the label. Just a bunch of words.” You may even start thinking to yourself that this person is a bit delusional and making up stories about this new found bottle. You know what you saw!

But do you really? I am currently in a 2-year practicum for Contemplative Dialogue. This is a program (actually, a practice) that gives us the tools to interact with others and groups in ways that help find shared meaning instead of continually stepping into what divides us. It really is much deeper than that, but I wanted to just give you that as an opener so my story below has some context. Believe me, I will share more as time goes on!

Due to this practice I commit to being mindful of the world around me and realizing that I may not have the entire “view” from where I sit. So every morning I spend time contemplating what I see and what I may not. Thanks to Contemplative Dialogue, one of the new favorite, important questions I ask myself is: why do I believe that? Why is this important to me? Because of my commitment to notice things, I now have absolutely no idea where some of my beliefs come from. Yet my beliefs are a part of my guiding values! So, here is an example of how this practice literally saved a friendship for me (my dear friend, as you read this you know I honor you in my life!)

I was in a conversation with a friend about a decision I had made to step back from a group I had been affiliated with for a long time. For me, so much of my identity had been tied up with this group that I needed the space in order for me to understand myself better. While talking about this, my friend would make comments like “I just don’t understand this” or “It doesn’t make sense” or ask questions like “Why would you not want to. . .” As I tried to answer these, I started feeling attacked, bullied and not listened to. To say it ended not so good would really be an understatement. The only way I could feel like I was being heard was to get strong and then finally (I am embarrassed to admit) hang up on her (granted, I did say “I am now going to hang up because I can’t talk about it anymore”).

When I got off the phone I was so hurt, almost heartbroken because I viewed her arguing with me and not understanding as her lack of loving and supporting me. I spent half the day in tears. Half the day is a key phrase! Because of this practice I was able to halt the pitty party I was throwing myself and look at what might really be going on instead of ruining an entire day (and in the past, could have been days!)

So I asked myself some questions like “why did I see her questioning my decision as a betrayal?” “what was she doing that made me feel so attacked?” “why was I getting so upset thinking she was making it all about how she felt and nothing about how I was feeling?”

Wow – did some great information come in once I started questioning myself! My biggest realization was that I had been raised in a family where you did not question as a way of conversing. This was a huge sign of disrespect. If my dad or mom stated what they were doing or what they believed, it was disrespectful to question their decision or ideas. Certain questions were okay if done with wanting to know more, but if it were perceived you were questioning the validity of the decision or idea, that was when I would be considered disrespectful.

So, to me, my friend was showing disrespect by all of her questions. Was I right? No. Was I wrong? No. It was just as I saw it at the time. It was an unexamined belief of mine. Because of my practice of noticing, I was able to see that I didn’t have all the information to justify being so upset. I needed to look at it from different perspectives.

Coming from the perspective of knowing this woman loves me, I began wondering if in her family it might have been different and questioning was a great part of the conversation. Or, did my friend view questions as gathering information for knowledge sake and not as a way of trying to convince me to change my mind or see it her way? As I sat with my new realization of why it all bothered me and then changed “my chair at the table” I was able to understand how she might see things differently and my anger disappeared. I knew in my heart she respected me. I knew that she wasn’t out to make me feel bad. And I also knew that I was okay with my decision so even if for some reason she was not, that was okay and I didn’t have to defend a position.

This realization would not have come about had I not used my practice of noticing, being mindful and realizing we never have the complete picture because we are only looking at it from our chair at the table!

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