My teacher kept me after class and confessed something, as I was a varsity cheerleader. She admitted to stereotyping cheerleaders as long as she could remember; vacuous, slutty, mean girls, empty brains. We talked about my paper and my worldview in general, and she apologized for painting me with an unfair brush and promised to evaluate cheerleaders as individuals from then on. I promised to try and not be a judgmental weirdo and maybe only bring my Bible to class half the time. Bless my heart.
A few weeks ago, I spent two days with about 60 women from all over the country, all influential and strong in their respective niches. No one knew everyone, a few knew someone, and some knew no one. We encompassed the furthest left leaners to the staunchest right-wingers, complementarians and egalitarians, rebels and conservatives, pastors, musicians, writers, speakers, authors, artists, poets, catalyzers, marketplace leaders; all over the map, literally and spiritually.
We all held our breath in the days preceding; this was a lot of diversity, man. Some of these girls had come toe-to-toe online before. There were camps represented, people had big feelings, theology was not unanimous. Some barely got on the plane, nervous and unsure and prematurely defensive. We were all leaders; many cooks in the kitchen, hide the knives.
We hoped our love for Jesus and desperation for our generation would be enough.
We were right.
What transpired was the most beautiful, holy, healing gathering. I didn’t even have the courage to imagine it. The differences melted away; I can’t even remember what they were in the first place. Some pulled others aside and said, “I was wrong about you. Forgive me.” We washed each others’ hands and shared communion and fell in love with one another.
It can be such a terrible word. They are all like that. They don’t get us. They are always _____. They are never _____. They are not our people. They are all the same. They all feel _____. They would never _____. The book is already written and them, and we can close it.
Do you know how often this is not true? Not even remotely true? The Mythical They creates straw men to disparage, propping up stereotypes and strengthening our prejudices while eliminating the actual work of relationships. It is the easy way out to be sure. We are excused from personal contact entirely, imagining ourselves as their victim or their target or their adversary. We can actually invent an entire conflict without speaking a solitary word to a live human.
How many of us have a secret nemesis? Women are particularly deft at harboring imaginary tension. She would never like me. I would totally hate her. She is the sum of the few parts I know about her. I heard she was _____. She is friends with/works for/goes to/believes that/affiliated with _____, so there is nothing else I need to know about her.
So rather than doing the grown up thing and actually talking or connecting or asking questions face to face, we hide behind The Mythical They and absolve ourselves of truthful discernment. Why have a potentially productive conversation when we can just make up a disastrous one in our heads? Oh sure, we may be entirely human and normal and nuanced, but certainly no one else is.
Let’s go here: How many of us refuse to walk into a church because they will all be _____ (cliquey, judgmental, mean, boring, holy). We see the church and say they. But here is a secret: all sorts of ordinary people just show up to church on Sunday. There is no they. It is just a collection of individual people who just lost their job or are going through a divorce or have a secret addiction or love Jesus like a fat kid loves cake or have no idea why they are there.
Reverse the scenario: If you snuck in the back door of a church and hid out on the back row, barely hanging on, and someone drove past the sanctuary and said, “Oh no. They are all _____ in there…” How unfair would that be? You’d stand up and say, NOT ME! You don’t know my story! If you only knew… Those are the same people under the steeples on Sundays.
There is no they.
I’ve done this. Of course I have. I imagine I know exactly the type of women I’ll be dealing with when I walk into a conference based on the venue, and I am wrong exactly every time. Because there is no they. No group of people is any one thing. Ever.
An 84-year-old woman sat next to me on the front row once, and I thought, wow, she is in the wrong place. I’m about to talk about justice and poor people and she is just here because she has been coming to conferences for eleventy billion years. I bet she falls asleep.
When I came off the stage, with tears pouring down her face, she grabbed my hands and said, “Everyone thinks I’m just an old lady and should sit in my pew and go gently into the white light, but I still have good years left, by God. I go to the prison four times a week. Those are my people. You are the first person who doesn’t think I’m crazy.”
There is no they.
It is immature and lazy to imagine we know everything there is to know about someone before we know that someone. We don’t know their stories, their histories, their real live human feelings. We don’t know their favorite movies and best memories and what makes them afraid. It is unfair to take one fact, one thing they’ve said or we heard they said, or one thing they wrote, or someone else’s experience, or a group they identify with and make a character sketch. If people did that to us, the picture would be so woefully incomplete, we wouldn’t even recognize our own description.
Who is your they? Is it a group? Because guilt by association is the lowest form of assessment. No group is all the same. They may have one line item in common, one belief, one perspective or mission, but that camaraderie is not the sum total of a person’s character. She is other things besides that. Probably a bunch of stuff just like you. You’d be surprised.
Is your they an individual? Have you invented a barrier based on anything but sustained personal connection? Maybe you think you know how someone will react or respond, but you could be as wrong about them as they are about you.
I suspect we misjudge people 90% of the time. Experience tells me I can sit down over coffee with almost any perceived adversary and end up laughing until my ribs ache. We were born on the same day, we both quit reading the same book halfway through, we are both worried about parenting, we both love Jesus even if we don’t agree on all the dressings. Common ground abounds.
Yes, some people are genuinely toxic or unhealthy, but we should draw those conclusions from personal experience, not hearsay or assumptions. I see a strategy for fracturing humanity well in play: just keep people separated and let them reinforce invented boundaries in their imaginations. Because when people come together and really listen to each other, doing the hard work of human kindness, virtually every barrier is breached. The entire mechanism is a house of cards; we can topple the structure with courage and trust and real discussions and grace for each other.
The Mythical They is a lie, and we can do better than this. Will you be brave? Do you need to pick up the phone or send an email and ask someone to coffee? Perhaps it’s time to stop painting a group with a wide brush and get close enough to see what those folks are actually like; you will never regret giving someone a chance, but you might forever regret carrying a fake grudge to your deathbed. Let’s refuse to buy into this horrid game. Let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt, some actual time. We’ll listen and connect and try to understand each other like the People of Mercy we supposedly are.
It could just be the most beautiful, holy thing we do.
Who is your they? How have you felt? Is that real or mostly imagined or somewhere in between? What will you do?