I hoped I was exuding an aura of casual confidence as I filed through line surrounded by unknown languages and unfamiliar faces. In reality, I was rumpled, smelly, exhausted and ready to crumble. I felt as insignificant as if I had been a fly crawling through the towering room of floor-to-ceiling polished brown marble, yet as conspicuous as the elaborately wrought bronze elephant that stood guard over the corner stairwell. As the only American in a room of disinterested faces, I wondered with detached desperation if there would be any place that I could belong during my stay in India.
It was a year ago this week that I got off the plane in Bangalore, India, in my first ever West meets East encounter. I did find there was a place for me in my visit there, but it was not until I returned to the U.S. that I realized how displaced I had been. It was in my own country that I experienced the full force of culture shock during that overseas adventure.
In an excruciatingly long layover in the Chicago airport, I saw America with the wide-open eyes of someone traveling from a foreign country. With a strange fascination, I watched random strangers walk by, and I could read them like an open book. Their emotions, desires, concerns and intentions spread out carelessly in a sort of comfortable self-interest. It was startling to see a people so free, yet so vulnerable.
I saw myself in them, too, as I must have appeared at the Bangalore airport despite all my efforts to act like this was not my first trip out of the U.S. I saw a person absorbed with the small patch of reality directly underfoot, someone who rarely looked outward at the grander scheme or considered one’s place and potential in it.
I felt how much I was kith and kin with these enigmatic people. I shared affinity, not just with their expressions of pride and self-reliance and integrity, but also with the enervated dismissal of whatever does not fall at one’s own feet. Whatever my convictions, instinct would direct me to sentiments like “not my problem … not my place to judge … their life … their choice … their body … as long as it doesn’t hurt me or someone else." That ingrained individualism was in striking contrast to the culture I had just left behind.
In eastern cultures, morality operates on an honor-shame paradigm: One person’s dishonor because of wrongdoing brings shame on the entire community. On the flip side, what is good for the society is good for all, and so one man’s well-being is in another man’s best interest. With that backdrop, there would have been ready affirmation for Jesus’ statement that the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:28-34). In that eastern setting, it was implicitly understood that your neighbor, in a sense, validated yourself and so should be treated with an equal measure of care and concern.
Of course, we know from other biblical incidents that type of close attention to others often took a form that was harsh and retributive. But Jesus was not speaking to conform to eastern thought or to fit into their conceptions of how they would understand His words. He was speaking to the world, to implode what men and women everywhere thought they knew about what was right and expand their hearts and minds to an ethic beyond any human system. In studying all of Jesus’ teachings, it is clear that what He meant by love goes far beyond any self-serving interest, instruction or judgment on others. It is not a call to an attitude of “I’ll love you if doing so will be for me” or “I’ll love you as long as what you love doesn’t interfere with what I love.”
It is a call to open our eyes to the people passing before us and read their stories, their hurts, their joys, their longings, as we recognize our own struggles and strivings reflected therein. Then, we can take up the responsibility of love and bear to them the Truth that has answered our own need.
(The author with a friend in India)