On Faith: Society could take some cues from tennis court

For many years I've been playing tennis at Orange Coast College and learning important life lessons:

•The players are a diverse group — a wide range of ages and ethnicities, both genders, many walks of life.

•The sportsmanship and civility is stellar — no arguments, thrown racquets or walk-offs. (Okay, there's been one minor dust-up in my 15 years there.)

•The level of mutual respect and support is inspiring. In my 70s, I don't move as well as once did, but the only comments I get from my doubles partners are, "Nice shot, Ben!" or something similar. One other player about my age took some gentle ribbing when he first joined the OCC group for his occasional gaffs. But along with the kidding came apt suggestions for improvement — and, my, has he improved.

•Finally, I'm struck with how a shared interest can make friends of people from so many backgrounds who ordinarily would never meet.

Granted, a recreational tennis court is not the real world and is, in fact, a place to escape workaday realities. But tennis at OCC could be a gentle metaphor for contemporary society where the level of rudeness, defamation and even physical violence seems to get worse by the week. This crescendo of meanness affects Muslims, Mormons, gays and lesbians, Jews, Latinos, Blacks and many other groups.

It pits political conservatives against liberals to such an extent that compromise translates to some as weakness or "flip-flopping." It spawns a gotcha mentality in some media that causes alienation rather than information. People choose their favorite sources of news and commentary and disparage the other guys — the political left or right. E-mails, blogs and tweets sometimes reflect this culture of rudeness.

Distinguished 20th century philosopher Martin Buber proposed a method for avoiding rude and disrespectful behavior in his classic work I and Thou. He wrote that there are two ways of approaching another person — as a "thou" (you) or an "it."

If we treat another person or group is an "it," we have de-personalized that individual or community. This was what slave owners did to African slaves, what Nazis did to Jews, and what Hutus did to Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide.

By contrast, seeing another person as a "thou" (you), ennobles and dignifies them such that we profoundly recognize their humanity. It amazes me when someone will run down a member of a different ethnic or religious group — or even a different political party — without ever having engaged the other in a genuine conversation.

The I-thou approach even extends to animals so that they, too, can be seen in some sense as personal beings rather than "its," mere chattel to be used or abused as one wishes. We have become very aware lately via TV shows on the Animal PlanetNetwork of how much animal neglect and cruelty exists in society. And anyone with a pet knows that those eyes looking back at you are personal.

As Buber says, "All real living is meeting," so the life of dialogue must be primary.

We need to work at personalizing the religious, racial and ideological stranger in order to repair and uplift our society.

BENJAMIN J. HUBBARD is professor emeritus of comparative religion at Cal State Fullerton.

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