I had a professor in college named Dr. Murray Decker; the class was Introduction to Intercultural Studies. On the first day of class, he had us move all the desks to the back of the room and outside so that the entire class had enough space to sit in a big circle on the floor. And it didn't stop there. Instead of "professor" or "Dr. Decker," he wanted us to call him Murray, as if we were friends who used to hang out at the local diner over burgers and milkshakes. He also explained that the structure of the class would be based on discussions, not lectures. I could literally bring nothing to class and it would be fine.
Some people would embrace this laid back style - I did not. My first thought was "I need to check when's the last day to withdraw from this class." But as uncomfortable as I was, I decided to stay in the class.
I never knew how narrow-minded I was until I took this class. The class covered a variety of topics but one of the biggest takeaways was recognizing that the things I might consider a norm are actually traits specific to my culture and that the principles I uphold aren't always right. It seems like something we all should know but I just never bothered to think deeply about it.
Growing up, I was taught that it was rude to treat adults like they are your friend. There needs to be a level of respect and I was taught to always agree with the adult, present yourself in the most wholesome way, and wait until they talk to you and respond with brief answers (your opinion isn't important). So being how I am, I did not want to call Dr. Decker "Murray" but he did not want me to call him "Dr. Decker." I didn't call him by his name at all, which he then said, "By the end of this semester, I'm going to get you to call me 'Murray.'"
I really learned so much in that class...I was always taught something as "the right way" but never questioned it. I never thought "maybe it's not the right way, maybe it's just a different way." We talked about tolerance and what it means to be tolerant of other people's viewpoints, beliefs, ways of living, and even small things like habits. We live in such a time where we need to politically correct, yet we argue over what is political correctness. I learned that maybe a respectable distance isn't always a good thing. With the people I love and respect, like my mentors and pastors, I intentionally draw boundaries for the reason I call "respect." But to be honest, I think it's a fear of disappointment, rejection, and hurt. And where does that leave me? It leaves me distant from them, unable to be close and vulnerable with them, and thus depriving myself of a real relationship.
I once visited Dr. Decker's (or Murray's) office to talk about my group project; I don't know how the conversation came to be, but he asked me about my family. I told him about how my dad had passed away unexpectedly and how I wasn't sure how to cope with it. He looked at me and sincerely said, "I am so sorry." I got uncomfortable and immediately replied with an "It's fine!" followed by an awkward laugh and some kind of flailing hand motion. But he stopped me and said, "No, it's not fine." After that, I let my guard down and I was able to share with him some of the things I was struggling with. We talked about grief and how it's okay not to be okay. That I don't always have to put up a front and be ashamed of not being okay.
I'm not sure why his reply of "No, it's not fine" stuck with me. Maybe it was because it reassured me that it was okay not to be okay. I'm still learning; I still have a hard time having close relationships because of the pressure I put on myself to be put together. But if you're like me and keep people at an arm's length for whatever reason it may be, "respect" or a fear of intimacy, don't let it rob you of the opportunity to have a real relationship with someone: to love and be loved.
And as for Dr. Decker, we decided to meet in the middle of "Dr. Decker" and "Murray." By the end of the semester, he was "Dr. Murray."