Fathom Mag

The Gaps Between Us

Learning to find a story based not on gaps but overlaps.

Published on:
March 28, 2022
Read time:
4 min.
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From day one, Andy irritated me. Every time he opened his mouth, my eyes instinctively rolled from one side to the other. The reaction was visceral. 

Even as the new guy, Andy seemed to have something to say about everything. His youth paired with an air of certainty I couldn’t help but pick up made my skin bristle. Sitting in meetings together, my jaw clenched tight every time he used the word actually. Sarcasm perched on the tip of my tongue. 

The worst part was that I had zero poker face, and our co-workers were beginning to notice my dislike.

The “Protection” Deception

What was it about Andy? Why did I cringe every time he spoke?

Up until Andy, I prided myself in getting along with most people. Sure, there was that cheerleader in high school and the supervisor whose expectations I never seemed to meet. But overall, I considered myself a person who leaned toward empathy and congeniality. 

Truthfully, I felt my dislike seemed justified. What I knew about Andy fit the stereotype of the smug seminary student, complete with dark-rimmed glasses, a handful of answers, and a khaki satchel at his side. His comments projected a world of black and white, without shade or variation.

I had very little patience for people who did not leave room for questions in those days. Andy, I told myself, was one of those people—certain, outspoken, and unsafe. Immediately, I wrote him off, drawing a line between us. We would sit together in meetings, talk about what was necessary, and nothing more.

I told myself the distance was for my own protection. 

Two years prior, an unexpected diagnosis and eventual death of our second-born son had unraveled me. All the certainties I once considered concrete had turned to dust. Pried open, my hands learned to receive the grace of what is gray. Nuance danced in my cracked and weary palms, and for the first time, not knowing felt like freedom. I found a place where grief and joy, raw pain and intimate presence, were not at odds but rather a fuller manifestation of Love.

The gray held me like a blanket in those dark days, and I had no desire to go back to my black-and-white, binary way of seeing the world. What I did not anticipate was my growing intolerance for people who appeared to have it all figured out.

Andy unnerved me. I did my best to hide my dislike, embarrassed by not only my inability to keep a straight face, but also the general ugliness that was crawling out of me. The more I tried to ignore him, the more animosity coursed through me like a poison. Something had to change. Because as much as I did not like Andy, I liked me even less. 

When Questions Undermine Assumptions

My words with God became brutally uncensored, the type of conversation where I dumped my garbage all over his kitchen floor. There was a lot to sift through, and while my disdain did not disappear by magic, a gentle prompting began to work its way into my mind: Ask him questions.

The thought gave me pause. Questions? What kind of questions? What could I possibly ask Andy that would change the growing wedge between us? 

The whisper of a new freedom spoke from somewhere in the space between me and Andy, and all I knew was that questions would lead the way.

I did not know exactly what it meant, but as I held the idea a little longer, I softened just a little. The whisper of a new freedom spoke from somewhere in the space between me and Andy, and all I knew was that questions would lead the way.

Spring came like a warm hug that year in the Midwest. The sunlight paired with the yellow daffodils had everyone lingering a little longer. Our weekly meeting was over, but my co-workers and I decided to stick around. I cannot recall whether we began to talk right there around the conference room table or our gathering evolved into a team lunch. All I remember is that Andy sat across from me. 

The longer the eight of us talked, the more serious our normal conversation and banter became, expanding into the realities of life outside the office—lack of sleep, difficult family members, kids, marriage.

Ask him questions.

Pulled by a force outside myself, my body shifted toward Andy, my elbows propped up on the table, chin resting in the palms of my hands. Andy mentioned his fiancé and their impending wedding plans, so I inquired about his family, where he came from, and where he was headed. He took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes, and talked about his strict upbringing, the pressure of being a firstborn, and the stress of planning a wedding while balancing work and grad school. 

There it was. For the first time, I saw it: the flash of struggle in Andy’s eyes as he spoke.

His certainty seemed to dissipate the more he told his story, and the context invited compassion, washing away so many of my previously-held assumptions. The more I leaned in and listened, the clearer it became why I struggled to like Andy: We were so very much alike. 

His having-something-to-say-about-everything was like looking in a mirror I thought I had thrown in the trash. My narrow, performative tendencies had come crawling right back, and despite my resistance to black-and-white thinking, I had fallen prey to forming high-contrast conclusions about Andy. I had allowed his opinions to overshadow the complexity we all carry, the humanity that weaves in and through us all. But I never would have seen it without asking the questions.

Finding the Overlapping Story

More of Andy’s story came out over the days and months that followed, and each detail brushed  color on a canvas I had once whitewashed. I would not say that Andy and I became close. Our families never went on vacation together nor did we become regulars in each others’ homes. We certainly still had our moments of difference, but I no longer struggled to be in the same room. Softness replaces the stonewall I felt toward him. Consideration replaced condescending eye rolls. And Empathy grew in the space where assumption once festered.

In the tale of our shared complexity the space between us narrows.

I hate to admit it, but I have disliked other people without much reason since Andy. First impressions come fast, and we all have a tendency to pull back from what is new, different, or seemingly unsafe. Sometimes distance is necessary. But now the feeling of dislike triggers curiosity and the tendency to ask questions comes a little quicker. I am learning to pursue a truer, better story—a story based not on gaps but overlaps. A story revealed only through questions. Because it is here, in the tale of our shared complexity, where the space between us narrows. It is here where we catch a glimpse not only of ourselves but of the Divine reflected in us all. It is here where even dislike softens and makes room for love.

Sarah E. Westfall
Sarah E. Westfall is a writer, speaker, and host of Not My Story, a conversational podcast about faith and the unexpected. Her writing invites readers into a life of authenticity and deep communion with God and with each other. Sarah lives in Indiana with her husband Ben and four sons.

Cover image by Marc Sendra Martorell.

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