Greetings from Asia! Bailey and I are visiting my sister and her family who work at an international school in Taichung, Taiwan. This is Bailey’s first international experience and it has been interesting to watch him processing the sights, sounds, and even the smells of a country so different from his own. One of the things that has made the biggest impression on us both has been the difference in driving styles. Having spent most of his life cruising the back roads of Indiana with few cars in sight, the crowded streets of a big city have taken some getting used to. Here in Taiwan, there are not only cars to contend with but lots and lots (and lots and lots) of scooters. My sister appropriately compared the rules of the road here to the flow of water. Just as water follows the path of least resistance, traffic flows in a rather free-form manner here, without any discernible rhyme or reason. I have been amazed at my sister’s patience with other drivers as they weave in and out of traffic around her. She (and the other drivers on the road) seem unphased by maneuvers that would elicit some unfriendly hand gestures back home.
As we traveled to our destination last night, Bailey pointed to a scooter rider crossing in front of us and said “How rude!” While I have to admit to seeing his point to a certain extent, I tried to explain to Bailey that rudeness is largely a cultural concept. What is rude in one country may be perfectly acceptable in another. (Unfortunately, I made the mistake of illustrating my point with the example of cultures who consider burping a compliment to the chef. I will now be hearing this bit of cultural relativism as an excuse for bad table manners for the next several years, I am sure.)
This idea of perspective-defining behavior has been kicking around in my head for a while. I must confess to often looking at things in black and white terms, but lately I have begun to wonder whether this is a valid approach to take. I don’t want to get all postmodern and revisionistic on you, but I think there is some truth to the idea that there is a great deal of gray in the world when it comes to human interaction. Though I find this realization a bit disorienting considering my natural bent toward defining things in terms of right and wrong, there is some comfort to be gained from viewing things this way as well. Prior to being more open to this way of thinking, when I had a conflict with someone, or was frustrated with the way a situation was handled, someone had to be in the right and someone had to be in the wrong. So I was either the good guy or the bad. Either way, I lost because this meant that either I was in the wrong and had trespassed against a friend or I was a victim of someone else’s wrongdoing. Neither role seemed terribly satisfying. But allowing for shadowy areas where two parties are at odds, not due to some moral failure on their part but simply because they didn’t share the same perspective, means that no one need be diminished in a moral sense. It is a clash of cultures, so to speak, rather than a transgression.
It’s all about giving someone the benefit of the doubt that you hope to be given by others. I am not saying there aren’t plenty of instances where someone is truly in the wrong. The Nazis were bad, cannibals need to cut it out, and serial killers aren’t just misunderstood. There are certainly universals which have been woven into our natures as bearers of the Imago Dei, and those who transgress against them are without excuse. But between the boundaries of the law there is a lot of wiggle room. Like those darned scooters squeezing into minuscule spaces between cars, we are sharing the road with a great many of our fellow humans. If we want to reach our destination in one piece and save ourselves a lot of grief along the way, perhaps it is best to put away our driver’s manuals and allow for a bit of tolerance. If we are lucky, those around us will do the same and all will be made right in the end. After all, Jesus didn’t seem to get bogged down in the little things but was much more concerned with the big picture. As the saying goes, the devil’s in the details and that is certainly company I don’t wish to keep.