Why We Should Be Friends With People Who Are Different From Us

me and kamalaI recently went to my Hindu friend’s house for lunch. As we were heading out the door, my daughter decided to put a sticker on her forehead so that she could look more like my friend. When I pointed it out to my friend, she immediately offered both of my daughters some of her bindis – the tiny sticker dot that she wears between her eyebrows. My daughters excitedly put them on and showed them off, simply enjoying the exploration of someone else’s tradition. The whole exchange got me to thinking about how deeply I value my friendships with friends who are very different from me.

Of course I have friends who are very similar to me – in family background, religious beliefs, cultural mindsets, political leanings, country of origin, skin color, hobbies, etc. And I am so very thankful for those friends, too.

But there is something extra special, and, well… different about being friends with someone who is different from me. Someone who was born in another country – or whose parents were born in another country. Someone whose culture practices arranged marriage. Someone who doesn’t believe there is a God. Someone who believes very strongly that there is another god – actually, many other gods – and who keeps a shrine to them in her kitchen cupboard. Someone who was in prison for violent crimes. Someone who has a hard time filling her gas tank. Someone who doesn’t own a car. Someone who doesn’t know who their father is. Someone whose kids don’t know who their father is. Someone who has never been out of our state – or city, for that matter. Someone who grew up being excluded, getting weird looks, and hearing snide remarks because of how she looks. Someone who struggles with infertility. Someone who lost a child. Someone who disagrees with me on almost every single one of my political views. Someone with intellectual disabilities. Someone who grew up as a missionary or military kid, and who doesn’t feel like they completely “belong” to any one culture. Someone who speaks English as their second – or third – or fourth – language. Someone who is blind.

Some of those things might sound like negatives, or like bad things, to you – but they aren’t to me, because I am describing my friends. And as I write about one or two defining things that set us apart, I remember the dozens and dozens of moments that brought us together.

The conversations, the moments of “ohhhhh” where I suddenly was exposed to one of my blind spots, the shared foods, the attempt to enter into grief with someone else, the sudden shattering of my brain as the world got ten times bigger, the expanded adoration of a God who could hold all of this and so much more in His hands, the shrinking of my pride, the embarrassment of stepping on someone’s cultural toes – and the subsequent forgiveness and transparent sharing, the history lessons, the growing ability to hold opposing ideas in tension without always needing a boxed answer, the diminishing of stereotypes, the laughter, the thankfulness that suddenly bursts on me at the sight of one of these friends.

And it strikes me that we might really need these friends – that they broaden us and sensitize us and hold us in check.

They keep us from categorizing people other than us in ugly ways. When I hear – or see – cruel comments about some clump of “people” (a political party, a race or culture, those in poverty, felons, people who are new to this country, people who believe/think differently than you do), it makes me angry. Because I have a friend who is a fill-in-the-blank. When you say that cruel comment that clumps all of those people together, it feels like you are making that comment to my friend.

They help us to care about MORE than our own problems. Have you ever noticed that you begin to care about the things that your friends care about? And you get angry about the things that hurt your friends. So although I am white, and I have never been the recipient of a racist comment, I see racism as a huge issue in our culture that must be addressed. I get angry about injustice towards blacks – historic and current injustice. Let’s save this for another day, cuz I was about to go off in a whole new direction just now. Anyway, what I was saying is that having friends who are different from me has given me a whole new perspective on issues that I thought I had nailed down into tidy paragraphs.

They make us aware of how much we have to be thankful for – and they put our issues into perspective. So many of my #firstworldprobs have shrunk down to size because of my friendships with people who have experienced much greater hardship than me. There are many, many “issues” that can provoke anxiety in isolation:

  • Am I doing enough for my children?
  • Am I giving them the right opportunities?
  • How much longer can I put up with this old toaster oven/couch/minivan?
  • I really need some new clothes!!!
  • Where can we go on vacation next summer?

… But they all start to look really silly in comparison when I bring them into the light of my friends’ experiences with poverty, exclusion, grief, violence, fear, and loss. I am thankful that I can read. I am thankful that we live in a house with a backyard. I am thankful that I have children. I am thankful that I can see. I am thankful that I speak enough English to get around in this country. I am thankful that no one looks at me funny when I drive to the store (unless I am 7-9 months pregnant). I am thankful that I have enough gas in my car to get me there.

Please note…. I am not just thankful that I am not someone else, or that I don’t have someone else’s problems. I grieve with my friends when they face struggles that I haven’t known, and I am thankful with and for them when they experience some great blessing. But knowing them has given me a much broader awareness of – and thankfulness for – how very much I have been blessed. And at the same time, how very small my own problems are in light of the rest of the world.

So here’s to friendship – and to those amazing differences that teach us and grow us and humanize us. May you never stop engaging in the sometimes uncomfortable, often challenging, but always worth-it friendships with people who are different than you.

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