A number of events happening right here in the US and around the world have gotten me to thinking recently about “The Hardest Lesson”. Nearly every religion in the world says something about the importance of Loving Your Neighbor (and most atheists have something like The Golden Rule). This ‘commandment’ is often referenced alongside stories like the Good Samaritan – these stories and commands are generally understood to mean that the one should consider your neighbor as a brother (without the sibling rivalry), regardless of whether your ‘neighbor’ is just like you or not. And there is where the Hardest Lesson lies. Loving your neighbor who is just like you – who looks the same, comes from the same background, has the same beliefs, practices the same religion, dresses the same, loves the same – is so easy, and so natural, we don’t need any instruction to do that.
Humans are “herd animals” – we need to be part of a group, and for millennia, our survival depended on being part of a tight-knit group. Our basic psychology DEMANDS that we create at least two groups in our minds – US and THEM. There must be a Them, so we know who Us is. So we look for ways to create that second group – people who are a different color must be Them. Or people who are poorer. Or foreign. Or a different religion (or even… NO RELIGION!). Or anything else that makes sense in the particular construct. We aren’t bad people because of this. Our brains are just wired for this because that’s what ensured our survival in the early days of human history.
But times have changed, and we don’t need most of these arbitrary divisions to keep our little herd safe from the big scary world. And that is what these rules are about. The most important, and hardest, part of Loving Your Neighbor is loving them WHEN they are different. When they are different. When they are foreign or poor or have different beliefs or dress ‘weird’ or talk ‘funny’ or look ‘odd’ or eat ‘gross’ foods…. THAT is when we need to really step up to the plate and practice Loving Your Neighbor.
So please stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and think about what has you riled up now – whether it’s immigration, gay marriage, welfare subsidies, racial issues, anti-X (whatever) sentiment, and take a deep breath, and remember that there are real people on the other side of that issue. Real people with real families, who are Just Like You in more ways than you realize. And please, take a moment to practice Loving Your Neighbor – invite someone you wouldn’t normally hang out with out for a drink. Bring them a plate of cookies. Stop and chat for a few minutes and see if you can find 3, just 3, things in common with them. Because loving the Other is the hardest, and most important, lesson for us all.