Trailing after my 1-year-old wingman, I spotted a promising looking mom-and-child duo working the firetruck slide. She smiled at me and I went in for the opening. Thankfully, my eagerness wasn’t too off-putting, and our random playground encounter evolved into a friendship. Leigh and I were delighted to discover that we both had small kids, were both therapists, and found New England winters disagreeable. It didn’t occur to me to ask about her religion because who really cared?
Just a few weeks later we were watching our kids play and congratulating ourselves for finding each other when the conversation took an unexpected turn. Leigh said she didn’t think our meeting was a coincidence. “It was,” she told me, “God’s plan”. Um… what?
It turned out Leigh had been saved at age 17, and since that time, she had been a devoted Christ follower. For her, “lucky” or “coincidence” was actually God’s good work. And she believed God brought us together because He wanted her to share His love with me.
This was tricky territory for me. As a cultural (as in, not terribly religious) Jew and an academic, my higher power is my belief in the scientific method. Her confidence that God had planned our chance meeting seemed a little… improbable.
In truth, I had never known a born-again Christian. Maybe it’s because I’m Jewish, or maybe it’s because I’ve lived in areas where cultural mores dictate that religion is something to be discussed in your own house or in your house of worship. Either way, hearing about Leigh’s worldview was an education in how a sizable portion of the population perceives the world.
Where I believe in self-determination, Leigh believes in God’s plan. When I worry about choices I need to make, she worries about whether she is listening carefully enough to God’s word. I believe my kids are squirmy buckets of soft tissue whose neural connections are guided by social learning and operant conditioning; Leigh has faith that God will guide her parenting choices.
If I sound judgmental, I’m not alone. Secularists often judge the religious as ignorant and small-minded. On the other hand, the ultra-religious are known to conclude that non-believers are in for some serious trouble in the afterlife. And since religion often drives political conviction, our differences are good fodder for pretty heated disagreement about how the world should work and what different approaches to living signify about our individual moral compasses. But try as we might to avoid those who differ from us, a world of public parks inhabited by parents from all kinds of religious persuasions doesn’t always permit it.
Fortunately, evidence suggesting that encounters with people who differ—even those whose differences we believe are intractable—shows that it is possible to get past those differences. For example studies show that Israelis and Palestinians pressed to spend time together can, in fact, build empathy and understanding for one another.
Similar lessons can be learned in the therapy room where I treat partners trapped on the battleground of their differences. In fact, the evidence-based treatment I use explicitly focuses on helping partners overcome differences (an accompanying self-help book is aptly titled Reconcilable Differences). In this treatment, partners work to develop nonjudgmental curiosity about differences and a willingness to accept those differences with appreciation, compassion, and tolerance.
And sometimes shifting focus from differences to what is shared can be useful, too. This kind of approach has been scientifically proven to help partners reduce conflict and improve relationship functioning even without eliminating the existence of those core differences.
This type of approach can come in handy in a world where differences in religion and political persuasion often yield acrimonious divides. In my own microcosm—and obviously far less loaded circumstance—I expected a relationship with a Born-Again Christian to crash and burn. I worried Leigh would try to convert me to Christianity. I expected our world views would infuriate one another.
It certainly could have gone in that direction, but several years after our initial park encounter, Leigh and I still enjoy each other’s company. I appreciate her faith and religious commitment and she respects my passion for science and my Israeli background. We don’t see the world the same way, but we sometimes can open one another’s eyes to the different ways that the exact same circumstances can be seen.
A few months ago, Leigh came to visit my new baby and me. She took one look at my puffy and tired face and said, “Hand him over, lady. By the grace of God, I’ll get him to sleep.” Desperate to get my child to sleep, I handed him over.
Maybe Leigh really does have the ear of God. Or maybe the baby was just worn out. Either way, he finally napped peacefully that day. After so many weeks of sleep deprivation, that nap kind of felt like a religious experience. And yet that moment wasn’t a conversion, but a reaffirmation of who I always have been: a Jewish skeptic who is grateful for the magic of friends.