The way I see the world was radically changed by having a real conversation with my enemy.

During my University days, I was invited by a Muslim classmate to attend a Ramadan fast breaking meal at the local mosque.  Considering myself, at the time, open minded and well rounded, I happily agreed.  I thought it would be a unique cultural experience.

When I pulled my car into the mosque parking lot and got out, I saw a tall man with a long beard and a long white robe coming toward me.

The only reference I had for someone who looked like this was the nightly news images of wanted terrorists.

My pulse shot up and my fight or flight response kicked in.  Flight was the obvious choice, and I immediately wanted to get back in my car and drive away.  I froze. As he approached, he offered me his hand.

No turning back now.

I shook his hand, and he pulled me into the mosque.

There was a large buffet spread out to one side of the open room.  This sheikh, still holding my hand, pointed out the different dishes, telling me what they were called and what country they were from. After filling my plate, he sat next to me and we shared a wonderful meal and conversation together.

This sheikh was a very kind man; he was not the person my gut was telling me he was.

That was a pivotal moment in my life.  I would have never verbally said that this man was my enemy, but I realized that I had been conditioned by the media and negative stereotypes of Muslims and Arabs to consider him so.

I have learned that I shouldn’t judge someone until I’ve actually sat down and had a conversation with them.  To learn that seemingly obvious lesson, I needed to interact with someone who was very different than myself.

This is one reason I love travel, especially to Jordan.  If you can stay off a big bus tour and actually connect with locals, you have the opportunity to see people who are very different than you, in a whole new light. And in turn, you’ll see yourself in a new light as well.

If you’re interested in further exploring these ideas, please check out this On Being interview entitled “Sidling Up To Difference” with Kwame Anthony Appiah.

Have you had a perspective shifting experience with someone who was markedly different from yourself? Please share it with us in the comments.