A few years ago I was part of a team leading a spiritual retreat for people impacted by HIV/AIDS.  Before one of the breaks, I offered to take a group to walk the labyrinth.  To my disappointment, only one person chose to join me, and this person was someone I found especially challenging.  I will refer to him as Jim.

Jim frequently interrupted others when they were speaking. He lacked self-awareness; even his voice bothered me. I wanted to bail, but there was no polite way for me to do that, so we began the short walk to the labyrinth.

Under the gaze of undivided attention, I found Jim to be significantly less irritating. I asked a few questions and learned a bit of his hard and heartbreaking story. When we reached the labyrinth, we noticed it had fallen into disrepair and the path was not easily visible.

“I don’t know how to do this.” Jim said looking downward. Then he added, “I’m scared.” “Don’t worry.” I replied. “I’ll lead you.”

I told Jim that some teachers encourage us to enter labyrinths with awareness of a three-step process. First, on the way in toward the center, we may create an intention of releasing something we would like to let go of. Second, we may simply receive while in the center. Finally, we can be aware of how we feel different, perhaps lighter as we return home following the path back out of the labyrinth.

We began to walk slowly with Jim right behind me, but he was still afraid. I asked if he wanted to place his hand on my shoulder, and he did.

We silently continued in this manner, Jim resting his hand on my shoulder as we trod the sacred path. When we reached the center I turned around to see a beaming Jim. He hugged me exuberantly. We celebrated; we prayed. As we turned toward home, I invited him to lead the way. Jim did not think that was a good idea, yet he relented.

And so we silently traveled out, Jim ahead, me a short step behind, with my hand on his shoulder. When we reached the exit/entrance, Jim pumped his fist and we both cheered.  On our walk back to the cabins, we laughed and listened to one another anew.

Throughout the weekend, I noticed Jim was less irritating–I’m not sure if his behavior changed or my perspective of it, or both. Rather than avoiding him, I felt genuinely excited to see him.

Could this be one way forward for us all? Is there someone, or a group of someones that get under your skin? A person or people that you judge, or to whom you feel superior? How might you create an opportunity to connect with that person, or one of those persons? What might you have to let go of to make space for connecting with those who are different.

Vilifying anonymous “others” in our thoughts, or speech, or actions is easier  if we keep them “separate” from us. This is all-too easy to do online.  Real relationships require we carry an openness to be changed by the “other.”

My arrogance and sense of self-importance threatened to prevent me from receiving the grace of walking with Jim. With whom are you being invited to walk in a new way? May we all have the courage to take the first step in love.