In my life, I have come across many people who held different views and came from different backgrounds that contrasted sharply with my own. These contrasts strike one as unusual at first, but with time comes the realization that these are also excellent opportunities for growth that emerge from understanding that the value of the human being is not dependent on views and cultural assumptions.
My most thought-provoking experience of this kind was the school trip to Europe in which I participated with some of my school friends. As we spent over a month in one city, we were placed in apartments rather than hotel, and I happened to have a Muslim guy, Abdul, for a roommate. To start with, I want to say that we never had any conflict as he personally turned out to have a mild and open disposition, welcoming to people of other backgrounds and willing to embrace difference. I tried to show the same attitude – and we got along quite nicely.
However, I really found some of the issues trying. Thus, the time coincided with the Muslim fast Ramadan, which meant that Abdul woke up at 5 a.m. every morning in order to have breakfast as it was prohibited later on. I am easily disturbed by the slightest noise, and the commotion in the kitchen in the early morning really got on my nerves. Using the bathroom was also a problem since Abdul was in the habit of washing prescribed body parts five times a day before doing his prayer, and with three people in the room following the same schedule getting in was quite a challenge. By the end of the month, the audio records of Quran recitations began to get on my nerves quite a bit, too.
The greatest challenge was not simply to get over these everyday differences, but to overcome the irritation caused by the person’s determination to follow a totally different lifestyle. Looking at Abdul, I often questioned myself: What is the point of such religious zest? It seemed totally at odds with my previous experience, something quite different from my world in which religious beliefs are smoothly integrated into social and professional life.
Yet this was one of the most educational encounters with difference in my life, and I owe a lot of it to Abdul himself. Talking to him about his religion, what it means to him opened my eyes to the fact that many people are eager to pursue a lifestyle that is quite different from my own. They hold to different beliefs that are also quite compatible with my own – we often talked about our belief in God and that Christianity and Islam in fact share many of common values and attitudes.
I now know that before condemning someone’s difference, I have to stop and look into the eyes of this person, trying to find out why this difference is important to him or her. We are so often confined in the boundaries of our daily experience, seeing the same or similar people every day, living in the same location for years, that we find it hard to explain something different. I had the chance to get a glimpse into a different life talking to Abdul about the Muslim tradition, family celebrations and many things that people in his motherland, Uzbekistan, hold dear. Since then, I have always been attracted to people and circumstances that allow me to experience change first-hand and to learn from this experience.
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