Growing up in Eastern Europe, I learned to avoid opening multiple windows at the same time. The only exception was if the windows were facing the same way; then, we could have several open at the same time. But not if the doors were open. We all knew windows and doors must never be open at the same time. As long as I can remember, from before I have memories, I learned and knew that currents of cold air blowing through a room were something to be feared.
The draft causes illnesses.
It was a fact.
I never questioned it. Just like many people growing up in my part of the world, I always assumed it was true. So did my relatives, my friends, and pretty much everyone I knew. It was true.
Do you have a sore throat? The draft probably got you.
Your child is coughing? She must have been exposed to the draft.
Your cousin has an eye infection? Surely it was the draft.
Be careful and keep your windows and doors closed.
Keeping the draft away was usually not too much trouble, just a normal aspect of life in that part of the world. Except for summers. Summers were hard.
During the scorching heat and pressing humidity we get from June to August, it can get pretty uncomfortable without air conditioning and no drafts allowed. There were times I longed to open all the windows of our apartment and let the air circulate and refresh our home. We even did this on a few rare occasions when the temperatures were unbearable, but only for a little while because … we did not want the draft to get us.
When I arrived to the U.S. as a teenager, the first things I noticed were that everyone had air conditioners and that cold air was blowing full force everywhere.
Cold air drafts.
Blowing through all rooms.
All. The. Time.
I am going to get sick, I thought.
But I was taught to be polite and adapt to my host culture. So, while I was concerned about my well-being and that of those around me, I forced myself to stop and observe how Americans were dealing with it.
I was puzzled to see that no one was talking about the draft, and no one was running around trying to turn off the A/C or close windows and doors. I was confused because this behavior was flying in the face of what I knew.
I knew the draft caused illnesses, so the only logical conclusion was that Americans weren’t aware of this fact. Poor Americans just didn’t know better. I thought I should warn them, but since I was a foreigner and a newcomer, I thought I needed to observe and learn a little more before saying anything.
To my surprise, I noticed that not only were Americans not getting sick from the draft, but that I wasn’t getting sick either. And I started feeling way more comfortable with the cold currents of air especially with the suffocating heat of West Texas.
I started thinking that either American drafts were different from Eastern European ones and not as powerful to cause sickness, or … that … perhaps … drafts really do not … have that much to do with getting sick.
Learning not to fear the draft was one of my first experiences with questioning my beliefs. Questioning what I knew. Or what I thought I knew. For a teenager, that was pretty scary. It felt like the ground was shaking under me. If in fact I did not know what I thought I knew, what was going to become of me?
Even though it was scary to question and revise my dearly held beliefs, it was good for me to do it.
The experience of questioning and reflecting on what we believe does not always lead us to change our beliefs, but it changes how we see and relate to others.
When we meet people who see the world differently from us, we might have several reactions:
Our first reaction might be to simply dismiss people who have a different worldview as ignorant or evil or deficient in some form. As our own beliefs are challenged, we get into denial mode and ignore what others are thinking. For example, when faced with the reality that Americans were not fearing the draft, I could have chosen to think they were ignorant and carry on as I did before: insisting to have the windows closed or the A/C off. Of course, I would have been miserable during West Texas summers and failed to learn something valuable from my American friends. Ultimately, dismissal creates distance and it robs both sides of the opportunity to connect and learn from each other.
Another reaction is to try to force the other person to see the world as we see it. While this might seem like a way of relating to the other, it still approaches that person from a one-up position and views them as ignorant, just as dismissing them does. In my case, I could have started taking every opportunity to convince all my “ignorant” American friends about the dangers of the draft. I probably would have lost some friends and been a lot worse off as a result. In the end, attempts at converting others without trying to see the world as they see it will fail.
3. Reflect and engage
The first two reactions both come from a position of arrogance: I am right; you are wrong. Both options neglect the possibility that we ourselves might need to learn, not teach, something. And that someone different from us might be the very best person to help us learn. A third option is to first look inwardly and reflect on what and why we believe and see if the world actually makes sense in the light of what we think we know. Only after careful self-reflection, we can approach the other person as a learner, not a teacher, and share what we think in a humble and truthful way. When dealing with my beliefs about the draft, I did the first part but not the second. I reflected on my beliefs, but I did not really share and engage with my American friends on this topic. In retrospect, I think it would have been better to share my concerns, fears, and confusion. We might have all grown as a result. I later learned that Eastern Europeans are not the only ones with curious beliefs. All individuals and cultures have them, and it can benefit all of us to engage in a little self-reflection instead of rushing to give vocal opinions.
Living in several cultures taught me that I cannot really change anybody who is different from me. I can only learn and share who I am and what I think as an equal with others who are on the same journey through life.
The author of Proverbs writes, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (27:17). We all need each other as we grow and learn and become what God calls us to be. As we interact with others, let us have open eyes, ears, and hearts. Let us see others as fellow learners and possible teachers instead of dismissing them or assuming a superior role over them. Who knows, we might even start feeling better in the middle of summer heat as our windows and doors are open and the draft we once feared refreshes our souls.
I want to hear from you too. Have your personal beliefs or practices ever been challenged? How did you react and what did you learn?
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