I was young when I first discovered and fell in love with musicals. My cousins still like to tease me about how I would always try to get them to watch State Fair or Oklahoma or one of my other favorites when we were kids. There was just something about them, they were just so… wholesome. It was hard to believe that anything could ever go wrong in the world while Maria was twirling on a mountaintop or Margy Frake rode the ferris wheel.
Last weekend, I saw RENT on stage for the first time. There are many words one could use to describe this show, but “wholesome” is probably not one of them. I walked out of the theater experiencing a wide variety of emotions. The story is just so… depressing. It was hard to believe that anything could ever go right in the world while Tom Collins mourned the loss of Angel once he succumbed to AIDS or Mimi returned to her addiction, again.
Suffice it to say that I’m much more Margy Frake than Mimi Marquez. This was a difficult show for me to watch, if I’m being honest. The world and lifestyles and values depicted could not be further from my own, far beyond the obvious and stark difference between Manhattan’s East Village and my own Boise, Idaho.
People have been asking me how the show was, and I’ve struggled to know how to answer. There is no doubt that the cast was exceedingly talented; they succeeded in bringing to life Jonathan Larson’s work in a compelling way. And if a show can be judged based on how much it keeps you thinking about it after the fact, then I’d say RENT knocked it out of the park; I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I walked out of that theater. I was mostly focused on all the ways that the characters depicted lived a life so different from mine, how they made choices I’d never make. And I thought about what those characters would think about me… a conservative, Christian, white, middle class stay-at-home mom. Needless to say, I don’t think they’d see me as a kindred spirit.
Then something made me flip a mental switch– instead of focusing on our differences, I tried to think of how I could relate to these characters…
Rent is (obviously) the name of the play and one of the opening musical numbers. The word rent means the price paid to use something, and it’s a theme throughout the entire show, characters singing about all in life that they rent, the space they borrow, the time and emotions that aren’t theirs to own.
But rent also means torn apart. A fitting title for a story about characters struggling to find glory, life, and love amidst seemingly insurmountable circumstances. And that’s where we intersect. Who can’t relate to a life torn apart, at least sometimes? The walls started to come down and I began to see myself in Maureen, Mimi, and Angel. The realization that there is likely more I have in common with these characters than differences forced me to wrestle with something… Why did watching their stories unfold make me so uncomfortable? And if I’m that uncomfortable with fictional characters whose lives are different than mine, how do I respond to the actual flesh and blood humans right in front of me that don’t look and act like Margy Frake?
Last year, I read “Braving the Wilderness” by Brené Brown, and it was nothing short of life changing. My Goodreads review even goes so far as to say that it should be required reading for every American. Dr. Brown warns against echo chambers and offers a primer in communicating with those different from you, something our country seems to desperately need. At least I know I do.
At a busy gas station this week, a cursory glance around yielded an interesting observation. Here I was, surrounded by a variety of characters, our lives intersecting at neighboring gas pumps. Our license plates indicated we were coming and going from different counties and states. We were dressed differently, some in professional wear, some dressed for blue collar labor, me in my mom uniform- jeans and a T-shirt. A man walked out of the convenience store with two packs of cigarettes. A couple of college-aged kids came flying into the station in a convertible, radio blaring. I realized as my total came to an even $40, a fact my son and I reveled in like the happy nerds we are, that if you were to suggest that I ask one of these people at the gas station for the time, I’d be most likely to select someone who looks or seems most like me.
I don’t want that to be the truth, but there it is… It would appear that I have some work to do.
We are complex beings who wake up every day and fight against being labeled and diminished with stereotypes and characterizations that don’t reflect our fullness. Yet when we don’t risk standing on our own and speaking out, when the options laid before us force us into the very categories we resist, we perpetuate our own disconnection and loneliness. When we are willing to risk venturing into the wilderness, and even becoming our own wilderness, we feel the deepest connection to our true self and to what matters the most.
-Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness
I’ve always said my love language is not one of the five identified by Gary Chapman, rather it’s Belonging. You can affirm me with words, serve me, show me physical affection, give me a gift, or spend quality time with me- however you choose to show me that I belong. Brené Brown says,”The special courage it takes to experience true belonging is not just about braving the wilderness, it’s about becoming the wilderness. It’s about breaking down the walls, abandoning our ideological bunkers, and living from our wild heart, rather than our weary hurt.” Whoa. My heart yearns for belonging more than anything. And my friend Brené’s words remind me that I can’t really experience true belonging unless I am willing to break down some walls. James asks it point blank- “How can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others?” (James 2:1, NLT) Heaven won’t be full of people who look and think and act like me. God created us differently with intention, but we all are created in His image, all created to belong. And I need to act like it.
How? According to Brené, “true belonging is not passive.” I must seek first to understand. Not shy away from people who think or live or act or believe differently. Ask questions. Stop trying to convince people that I’m right. “Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’”
How do you measure the ways you connect with people different from you? How about love? Remember the love. Measure in love.