Two gentleman sit on the park bench. It’s mid-morning. They’re having a few beers and enjoying the day.
As I walk by, one of them signals for my attention.
“Hey, do mind if we ask you a question?”
I can’t think of any decent reason why not, so I walk over and join them.
They’re reminiscing about the old days and wonder if I remember any cartoons from back in the day. I mention the few that come to mind.
“Oh man, those were good ones. Do you remember those days?” one guy says to the other.
The conversation keeps going, and we cover a wide range of topics. We talk about life – how one of the guys spent several years in the navy. We talk about work. We talk about the injustices of racism – how the cops are likely to give the two guys a harder time for drinking in public just because of their skin color. We talk about sex, marriage, and kids.
In many ways, their way of looking at the world is quite different than mine. They operate from a different set of values. At times I’m not sure how to respond to them. I’m not sure what to say when they ask my advice on how to get win over the ladies at the bar or want to my thoughts on other life challenges.
I don’t quite agree with their lifestyle and choices. I see how elements of it are destructive – both to them and others.
Yet at the same time, I don’t want to cast judgement. Who am I to be the moral policeman? Who am I to say I know what’s best for them?
I could just end the conversation. I could tell them I have somewhere I need to be or make some other excuse. But I don’t want to take that approach.
Besides the benefit of being with people who challenge the my thinking, I’m having a good time. I enjoy the conversation. Both gentlemen are nice and are interesting to listen to. And for all our differences we’re probably more alike than we are different.
So I just give the best answers I can. I try not to validate what I don’t agree with. I try not to judge. And I try to be helpful.
Later that day, I would think back on the conversation and come up with a better way of responding. What if I had used a question?
“I’m curious, does it make your life better?”
We often come against people we disagree with. We meet people who are doing things we feel are destructive or unhelpful. Maybe they are even friends or family.
Instead of challenging their actions or themselves, we can bring curiosity and compassion.
Ask people if what they’re doing gives them a better life. Does it give them contentment and satisfaction not just in the short term, but in the long run as well? Does it do that for the other people in their lives?
Ask from a place of genuine compassion. Ask because that’s what we really want for people. We wish they’ll live with a bit more peace and freedom. We wish that they won’t suffer. We wish they’ll find happiness.
Ask from a place of curiosity. We want to learn. We want to expand our understanding of the other person, of ourselves, and life.
The power of the question is it takes the conversation away from what we think is best. Even though we have wisdom to offer, we’re not able to speak into another’s circumstances – especially if they’re someone we only met a few minutes before. We’re not in a place to see the full picture.
Maybe they’re doing pretty good considering all they’ve faced in their lives. Perhaps they’re fighting against obstacles we’ve never had to deal with. We don’t know.
So instead of closing others down with judgement or telling them how they “should live”, we have the opportunity to invite them to stay open and become curious. And that may spark an insight or reflection that brings about a change in their lives. It may actually make them happy.
Or not. We’re not the ones who decide. It’s up to them.
Our conversation at the bench ends when a cop comes by and announces alcohol is not allowed in the park. After making their apologies to the officer, the two men head out of the park. I continue my walk.
Wherever they end up going, I hope they’re happy.