I didn’t see it coming, but watching my baby become a toddler has taught me more about cognitive development than I had ever considered before.
He fearlessly climbed up on a step stool the other day, strategically positioned (for him) under a light switch. I said off as he flipped the switch down, then on as he pushed it back up. Later that day, his Grandma said off as she pulled her glasses from her face, and then on as she slid them back in place. And I wondered how babies can possibly learn language, when the same words are used for such wildly different applications as electricity and apparel.
As we read books together, he began to consistently identify when a drawing was depicting a bear, despite wildly different illustration styles ranging from realistic to down-right whacky. And even though dogs come in so many different breeds, sizes, and shapes, he began to learn that they all fell in the category of dog.
So, maybe the way we learn language hardwires our brains to categorize, because I still as an adult find myself trying to categorize the people I encounter each day of my life. Even though I know better than to stereotype, judge, and assume, it’s a habit I can’t entirely shake. I’m no neuroscientist, but my toddler’s language acquisition has got me thinking that maybe it’s just how our brains are made. And far from resigning me to my fate, this understanding has helped me begin to try to actively counter this survival tendency when it comes to how I see, engage with, and welcome others into my life.
This idea crops up in tons of ways in our lives, but today I want to zoom in on how this tendency to categorize and then accept or reject impacts the notion of community in our lives.
For example, let’s say I walk into a women’s conference at my church. Round tables freckle the auditorium in place of the typical rows, inviting conversation and equitable belonging. Let’s assume I don’t already have a table waving at me from the other side of the room. I find myself in a moment of decision. I flash back to the high school lunch room and panic for a second; where I sit and who else ends up at this table matters. I look for people with whom I know I belong, or, if I don’t see any of those, I probably look for others who look like me or look safe. So many evaluations, assumptions, rejections, and stereotypes are wrapped up in that one moment.
I’m not giving us too hard of a time about making those assumptions in that moment, because I’ve been there too. It’s only natural. But as of late, I can’t help but wonder what we miss when we only ever sit with the ones who look safe, the ones who look like us, or the ones we already know. I wonder how our lives might shift, our perspectives widen, our categories expand if we were quicker to welcome the misfit to the table.
Listen, I’m a big fan of finding your people. I really believe we each aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s okay. I am a champion of peer groups where you are doing life with peers in your same life stage. There is such comfort and encouragement in connecting with those you feel really get you. And the reality is that sometimes those people look like you and are in the same life stage as you. Sometimes your categorizations and assumptions are correct, and that’s all right. After all, it does seem to be how our brains our wired to make sense of the world.
And yet, what if this week, you sought out just one opportunity to test your brain’s power to categorize correctly. Because our cognition helps us make sense of the world, but let’s not act like it’s foolproof.
The other day my toddler saw a picture of a house-cat in his book and said rawr like a lion. And while I understood the connection, he wasn’t quite right. He needed his category expanded and corrected just a bit. And I think the Lord is ready and waiting to do the same for us.
Back at that women’s conference, what if I sit at the table that doesn’t feel like the best fit? What could I learn from the older women there? Or what new life perspective could the divorced, single mom of teenagers bring to my own experience? What insight could the teenager give, or what might the 20-something need to hear from me that she never would’ve heard at a table of her peers?
It’s such a beautiful thing to welcome the misfit to your table, to help them feel a part of the group, explain the inside jokes, and make sure their voice is heard. Do that as often as you can, because Jesus certainly welcomed the misfits to his “table” and called them friend and follower.
But more literally speaking, Jesus didn’t so often welcome others to his table, because he was homeless. He didn’t have a table, which resulted in Jesus making himself the misfit at the tables of others much more often. He entered the hostile environment of religious leaders’ tables (Luke 14:1) and invited himself to eat at the reject tables of tax collectors (Luke 5:29). He spent time near the pool of Bethesda where the sick were already gathered (John 5:3), and he decided to sit down at a watering hole in the “enemy camp” of Samaria (John 4:6). Sure, Jesus welcomed all to his table, but more often, he took on the role of the misfit and invited himself to their tables, both literal and otherwise, instead.
And if I’m really trying to live more like Jesus did, I think I have an opportunity here to make myself the misfit too. A good first step is to welcome the misfit, but when you’re ready to take that next step, it’s time to turn the tables and go to the tables where you’re the misfit.
Jesus seemed to think it was a strategy worth employing. Maybe he was just actively working against the same survival tendencies we all share as fellow humans: the tendency to categorize and deem safe or not safe, good or bad, like me or not like me. Because if he was tempted in every way, even as I am (Heb. 4:15), surely he also felt the pull to sit at the tables he felt welcome at, the ones he knew he belonged at, with the people that looked like him.
But with the vision of the Father, full dependence on the Spirit, and a heart centered on the sacrifice he was going to be making for the entirety of humanity, it’s no wonder Jesus went to the other tables. He saw their value even though they looked different, appreciated their perspectives despite their different backgrounds, and he loved them even when they hated him. This bigger vision made going to their table perhaps not any less scary, but clearly worth the potential awkwardness.
And we, my friend, have the mind of Christ.
1 Corinthians 2:15-16 says, “The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments…we have the mind of Christ.”
Through the Holy Spirit in us, we can see the people around us through the lens that Jesus himself used on earth. Our brains may tell us that she’s a misfit, or she’s not like you, or she’s not your kinda people. But the mind of Christ might whisper: go introduce yourself to her anyway, go sit with her anyway, or go invite her anyway.
And while this might feel hard at first (trust me!), ultimately, in learning to listen to the Holy Spirit’s leading in this area of our lives, we can experience such freedom. Freedom from our initial judgments, assumptions, prejudices, and stereotypes can be ours when we practice living from the mind of Christ and choose to go to that table…ourselves the misfit.
Love ya, friend.
Your Sister, Kimber
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