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Seeing our Differences as Strength

Lately, it seems that our differences are tearing us apart. Instead, these differences can and should be seen as a source of strength. Differences of all kinds - age, gender, race, ethnicity, ability, socioeconomic - provide unique perspectives that, when brought together, enrich understanding and reveal greater opportunities.

The principle in Lesson Five of Serving with Dignity is "the greater the cultural difference, the longer the time to trust." It doesn't mean that trust can't be built across these differences but it does mean that we can expect it to take a bit more time to build trust across the differences that stem from our unique makeup and like experience.

I'll assume that you would like the people you are trying to help to trust you. That trust may not materialize and when it doesn't, it may not have anything to do with you. The person may just not have the time or the interest. Or it may be that you remind them of someone else with whom they've had bad experiences in the past. In these cases, you are inheriting what can be called a "relational debt." That doesn't seem fair but it is common and when you take a step back and think about it, can you blame someone from being a little wary if they've been hurt before? "Once bitten, twice shy," the saying goes.

Serving with Dignity puts a high premium on meeting needs within the context of dignified interdependent relationships. That is the ideal and, by definition, ideals are rare. Dignified relationships take time. In serving or helping contexts we sometimes speed the process up and sacrifice relationship for the sake of efficiency. When we slow the process down, we have a greater opportunity to get to know people, their situation, and their hopes and dreams.

Dignified relationships are also voluntary. Both parties have to opt in. All you can do is your part - interact with everyone in ways that are more likely to yield healthy relationships and avoid the things that hinder those types of relationships from forming of flourishing. You'll form new bonds with people who will enrich your life as you give and receive care which forms the basic building blocks of a dignified relationship.

As you are helping others, simply treat people with respect - honoring them as the captains of their own life while finding ways to play a supportive role, not taking them on as a project or a problem to be solved. Don't treat people as if they are defined by their need or circumstances or assume you know them just because they've asked for help. Take time to learn their story and share bits and pieces of your own story as you make a connection.

Over time, your motives and character will become clearer and people will get to know you. If you remind them of a wound they've endured by someone who looks or sounds like you, prove yourself different by acting differently; consistently treating them with kindness and respect.

While you are doing that, a collective strength will emerge and help you tackle problems together and come up with solutions that move everyone closer to their own goals. Cultural differences can be bridged and the ideas that emerge will be much richer than when you do things in a monocultural bubble, lobbing uninformed solutions across the divide.

Take a risk and allow time to reveal intentions and character and build the kinds of relationships that we all need. Not only will you be more effective at helping others, you'll also be bridging cultural divides that are tearing people down and pushing us apart.

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