Encountering the Other

Living God's LoveEncountering the Other

by Becky De Oliveira


“When you encounter another person, when you have dealings

with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must

think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation?”

—Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, p. 124


It’s that time of year again. Many articles are advising people on how to get through Thanksgiving dinner with relatives who hold different political views and are not shy about sharing them in the most abrasive way possible. The toy company Mattel has come up with a creative solution, issuing a “nonpartisan” Uno game that features no red or blue cards to avoid any association with the Democratic or Republication political parties. The game also has a “veto card” to use against guests who discuss politics. Can I just say that what I’m most thankful for this year is my family, which does not need a game like this to get along?

These days Thanksgiving in my family is a relatively small and stable affair—our immediate nuclear family and sometimes my parents. We are all pretty much on the same page as far as the current state of affairs in the United States goes. The only conflict I can envision erupting this year is a brief spat with my mother over whether we should make the holiday “easy” for me by getting instant food and eating it in a hotel room at the Hampton Inn in Longmont, Colorado. (We will not be doing that.)

When I was a child, we often had Thanksgiving dinner with both sets of grandparents and my mom’s brother, Victor. There was no telling what topics might come up over the course of the visit, which usually lasted several days. One year, my especially gloomy grandmother waited until we were all happily tucking into full, steaming plates to say, “Just think how different it will be once the Sunday Law goes into effect and Reagan puts us in concentration camps.” Indeed.

One year, I was kept awake for hours as I tossed on the sofa, one set of grandparents having commandeered my room, while my uncle berated my mother about the evils of sugar. He was firmly Team Honey. He was also against the idea of eating in general, which was obviously an unpopular stance on Thanksgiving, although my grandparents generally took some of the joy away from it with their carob health pies and other innovations seemingly designed to induce suffering. “Food will kill you,” he’d insist. And if he’d been talking about the health pies, I might concur. But no, he really did mean eating in general. “The goal is to achieve a foodless state,” he’d continue. Once he regaled us all with the story of a delegation of scientists who dug down to the center of the earth and there (presumably amongst the molten rock and fire, or maybe they didn’t dig quite that far) they found a rock. When they cut the rock open, they found a live frog wedged inside. “Why do you think the frog was still alive?” he asked, and none of us had a clue what the answer might be. “Nothing to eat inside the rock,” he said triumphantly.

“Oh, he exhausts me!” my mother would exclaim. But there was never any question of his presence at the table—Thanksgiving, Christmas, any time he felt like turning up. He was family. We had to tolerate him, love him even.

Family is easier than non-family. Like most people, I’m not entirely sure what to do with those individuals in my life who spew what I perceive to be hate-filled, crazy (and often misspelled) rants or worse, memes, on social media. Many of them are distant acquaintances and no real action on my part is required, but I like to keep a check on my attitude all the same. A former employee at the school I attended as a child is guilty of online vitriol, even having seen fit to direct it at my mother, a woman in her seventies with late-stage Parkinson’s disease, last year. The thing is, I remember this woman as a kind and generous person. Even now, in between her attacks on everything and everyone, she’ll pause to write me a kind message and ask after my children. She seems to be genuinely fond of me while simultaneously despising my kind. Who is this individual? Which version represents who she really is? The data is conflicting; I can’t resolve it.

So I have stopped trying. There is a story I love of a rabbi approached by one of two members of his community who were embroiled in a disagreement. The rabbi told the individual that he was right. Then the other person came to tell his side of the story. “You are right,” the rabbi said. His wife was incensed. “They can’t both be right,” she said. “You are right too,” replied the rabbi.

My suggestion for Thanksgiving is to approach it “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2, ESV). And don’t worry. You’re probably right.


Becky De Oliveira is a teacher, writer, graphic designer, and doctoral student working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.

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