Have you ever lived in another culture? I did when I decided to spend my senior year of college in England. I spent my summer of that year working with 49 other students from the U.S. and Western Europe on an archaeological dig on the southern and western end of the Temple Mount (Harim al-Sharif) in Jerusalem.
In the fall of that year, I began to attend a small college northwest of London. I did not know it at the time, but my seven months there changed my thinking in a profound and long-lasting way.
The college had students not only from Britain, but also the British Commonwealth, Western Europe, Canada, and the United States. It was the first time in my life that I became a minority—a foreigner—a temporary immigrant, if you like. During that year I discovered that there was an American perspective that differed greatly from that of Brits, Belgians, Germans and French. I had always assumed everyone thought like I did. It never occurred to me that where one was born determines how one perceives their world.
My American perspective had given me spectacles that had blinded me to seeing issues through the eyes of others.
My initial reaction to this discovery was to become very nationalistic and patriotic. I felt like I should be wearing a cowboy hat and boots. My core values and beliefs had come under attack—in the sense that they were in competition with other values. What made American thinking right and the beliefs of other nationalities wrong? What made being an American exceptional?
I discovered that peoples of all cultures have to deal with the realities of the situations into which they are born. None of us can control the government or the society into which we grow up. Each nation’s history, geography, and values are absorbed unconsciously, shaping and molding us into whom we will become.
Additionally, we have our own unique physical geography that shapes our thinking. One South African student at the college was a medical doctor. In a column for the school paper he explained that each organ in our body is different from the same organs in other bodies. No two people share exactly the same livers, or hearts, or eyes, or brains. Because of these variations, we take in information differently. What is important to one person may mean little to another. The message of his column was that we should be tolerant of others’ beliefs since we are all made a little differently from each other.
These realizations were very humbling. It was also mind expanding. Other cultures could teach me by forcing me to contrast how people from different nations, languages, religions, and philosophical views solved the same human problems we Americans face. The paradox was that the peoples of these cultures had come to differing solutions that worked for them.
The large variety of choices set before me by these nationalities caused me to become a shopper of ideas, a diner at a smorgasbord where I could chose what to sample and savor, or not, according to my own preferences and tendencies. That enormous variety of choices made me hungry to learn how others see the world. Someone from another culture might have a better solution to a human problem than we Americans have found.
Those of you who are reading this column live in the United States during a presidential election year. We see a wide variety of positions and perspectives that some grasp onto with either certainty or fear. National elections force us to be confronted with differing ideas just like I was confronted with by living in England.
Our natural human tendency is to react like I initially did to differing views: to withdraw inwardly and to be afraid because the opinions of others challenged my core beliefs.
Perhaps a better approach is to find our security in the realization that we all are different. If we are humble enough we can actually consider differing perspectives as a way to test our own beliefs and choose the ones that suit us better. America will be a better place if more of us follow this approach.