Discomfort That Fertilizes Growth

A thermometer is not a thermostat. A thermometer measures temperature, while thermostats change the atmosphere.

Recently, when going to the eye doctor, I took a book with me, Teaching Black History to White People by Dr. Leonard Moore. I was on the last few pages, and I’d marked up my book, page after page with underlining, asterisks, arrows and various useful notes.

When the ophthalmologist came in, he asked what I was reading, then said he was wary of such books/authors. When told the author is a UT professor, the doctor remained skeptical. He mentioned our conversation from a year or two ago, in which, after observing his active family over years, (he is white, his wife is Vietnamese-American), I asked him how his children identified themselves. At that time, he kind of exploded, as if he’d never once considered how his own children self-identify. In this appointment, he was immediately aggressive and defensive. Clearly, it was present in his thinking. But he also said he continued to learn, which I encouraged.

I was there to get my eyes examined and to represent the Kingdom of God, so I went low-key, responded softly, kindly. He’s already a professing Christian, and I hadn’t brought that book by mistake. I’d considered bringing a devotional book, instead. This one? Seemed exactly the way to go; glad I brought it.

I borrowed a line from the book, “Discomfort is the fertilizer for growth.” He liked that. We talked about interconnected humanity, how love involves hearing the other and infuses basic human respect, even toward those we are unlike or disagree with. He liked that. I took his deflections and did not beat him down with them; I used them. I wasn’t aggressive, just steady.

He said he wanted his children to travel, and he had a bucket list of beautiful places. I agreed it’d be great for his children to travel. Then I told him about the Mathare North slum in Kenya, how one child happily shared fragments of candy from her hand with several others. I said instead of going on safari, I went to orphanages we supported. He spoke of corruption in Africa. I agreed, told him we worked through people we knew on the ground, but he should not underestimate our own capacity for corruption. 

We had this moment, as he seemed geared up for an argument that wasn’t there. Instead, he found himself agreeing. Of course, it all could have blown up and gone down in flames.

Our conversation went against much of the culture and brand of U.S. “Christianity” he knows, (one that conflates the Gospel and following Jesus with conservative politics, white ethno-nationalism or coveting), which I have no doubt God is calling him out of.

I asked if I gave him my book, Teaching Black History to White People, would he read it? He said “Yes.” So, I pulled out my page marker, handed him the book and shook his hand.

The book will answer some of his honest questions, absolutely destroy some arguments, and invite him to an awareness he does not yet possess, and to narratives he hasn’t heard. The Holy Spirit can take it from there, to undermine and destroy a lifetime and generations of blinding, deafening arguments and to open his eyes.

That book is my investment in this doctor’s enlightenment as a human, as a professing believer, as husband and father. It’ll take courage to face every discomfort truth reveals, then walk in that light. So, we’ll see how it goes.

Its not enough to observe this darkened, poisoned atmosphere; we need to change it. May God give us sufficient humility and willingness -even in our own discomfort- to listen, to understand others, to see our interconnectedness, and speak only truth, while loving those we are unlike or disagree with. As salt, light and thermostats all do, we will change the atmosphere.

By Frank Robinson

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