I was driving to work one day recently when I noticed the sign. It said “Harmony Township”. Sure enough, I was driving from the suburbs of Philadelphia to rural NJ just outside of Phillipsburg, NJ and it was a place really called Harmony. Truthfully, the last part of my drive really is quite beautiful as you pass pastoral farmland and houses set back from the road with trees that almost seem to welcome you. I could believe that the people themselves really do live in harmony. What is there to fight about when you live in a place like this?
It is a great irony, that to get to this place called harmony, I have to travel on the death trap known as Route 22 that goes through Allentown and Easton. In only the two weeks that I have been commuting, I have seen at least five accidents and have had to traverse around vehicle debris on several occasions. This is partly because this area of the highway seems to be one long work zone with varying posted speeds and mostly because people just aren’t paying attention as they drive. When an accident happens, which is nearly everyday, traffic backs up and people don’t seem quite so harmonious.
Recently, I have been noticing that life is a lot like this. We all want to live in that beautiful state of harmony, but far to often we find ourselves in a traffic jam of conflicting opinions and impatience with whoever is in our way. How did we get here, where attacking another person’s perspective or their character is our first course of action? How did we decide that if someone belongs to another group, whatever it may be, they are wrong and worthy of our derision? What is it that leads us to criticize first and ask questions later? I think it might be the same thing that causes so many automobile accidents – simply not paying attention.
Recently, I had a meal with a long time friend that I had not seen in a while. For ten years, we had collaborated on a major music festival in the Philly area and loved hanging out during the year to plan and dream about the next event. If you had asked me, I would have said that we were pretty close friends and that we knew a lot about each other. Then, like many times in life, things change, the festival was no longer happening and circumstances drew us apart. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to hang out, we were just busy. So I looked forward to seeing him and getting caught up. This time though, I decided to try something different. When we sat down to eat, I made a point of listening more, asking better questions and not making assumptions.
During that meal, I was astonished at what I learned. I already knew he was a talented engineer who had gone to the University of Pennsylvania and was also a great musician. What I didn’t know was how much we actually had in common. He had gone to a boarding school that had prepared him well for college and so had I. He loved books and read widely. So do I. He was challenged by the reality of hitting middle age and so was I. And yet, we also had some differences. He is African American. I am not. He grew up in New York City and I grew up in the Caribbean. Despite these obvious differences, our commonalties drew us together again. We laughed, commiserated and talked for a long time. I only wish I had arranged this meal a lot sooner.
Paying attention matters. Choosing to listen, asking good questions and not assuming the worst in someone else can change everything. Jesus did this pretty well and is a great role model. So often, he noticed people that others ignored. He chose to go to places where he could learn about how people actually lived and worked. As I drive to Harmony Township this week, I will be thinking about whom I need to call to ask out for a meal. I look forward to being astonished again.