A few years ago as a form of penance, I volunteered for our local Rape Recovery Center, teaching students at the juvenile detention center and at alternative high schools. Since I knew a number of the students were either rape survivors or perpetrators, it was a daunting challenge to give hope to the abused while also convincing the perpetrators that rape is a criminal, cruel behavior.
My co-presenter, a therapist named Ken, developed amazing rapport with the youth, easing gently into the discussions. He asked a number of open-ended questions and respected everyone who participated. The class presentations were frank, gritty, and honest. Our students were street smart and savvy and, with the exception of a group of young men in the JDC whom I taught without Ken, were unabashed.
I will never forget a tough group of gangsters that we taught. One heavily-tattooed youth--about 17-years old--was unimpressed when we told him that if a woman says "no," it is rape. He discussed in fairly graphic terms his own views about rape, which revealed that he not only condoned rape but that he had been a willing participant in one.
Ken listened politely and didn't flinch as the youth bragged about his exploits. Ken continued on with the discussion and then, as we were finishing our presentation, he talked about the pain and suffering that rape survivors experience. We both described the physical and psychological trauma of rape victims and told the youth that often the pain continues for years.
Then suddenly the rapist's eyes lit up. He got it. He said, "I made a mistake. I shouldn't have done it, but I thought she wanted it. Now I know better."
I realized that if Ken had confronted the youth right after he made his bold pro-rape comment, the gangster would have tuned us out. Because he felt validated and respected, he was willing to listen and learn. And he did.
That teaching experience changed my life. I am a better teacher, listener and friend. Stephen Covey's principle of seeking first to understand before seeking to be understood is a powerful one. It strengthens relationships and invites peace.
Think about how different our families, neighborhoods, and countries would be if every person worked to truly understand his neighbor. Imagine how our communities would be transformed if people listened compassionately before they spoke. Picture a world in which everyone cared about their neighbors--even the ones that are really hard to love--and respected them.
The Savior was a perfect example of this principle. He broke bread with the sinners, the sick, and the disenfranchised. He lectured the Pharisees about their self-righteous, judgmental actions, calling them "whitened selpechres." He is the perfect example of justice, mercy, and empathy.
It is so easy to make rash judgments, to condemn others, but peace on earth and peaceful living begins with consciously choosing compassion. As we try to look beyond outward appearances to see the hearts of others, we will discover that each person--even those who have made terrible choices--is a child of God. And that attitude makes all the difference.
© Carol Brown