We may all sometimes wish other people would be more like us; that’s when it takes work to keep hearts and minds open
By David Kennedy
We all want some form of stability and predictability in our lives. Even thrill seekers want a regular income and a stable society in which to move around. But the world grows ever more complicated. Right now, our society, and human society in general, seems pretty chaotic, what with political upheavals, weather disasters, mass killings, homelessness and much, much more. It makes many of us just want to hole up with our families, friends and other like-minded souls in whatever enclave suits us.
We tend to sink into ourselves and want the world to operate according to our standards rather than make any personal adjustments ourselves. It’s a human trait but also a result, I think, of our upbringing. Yes, there are many features of our world that need improvement. Society should indeed change to improve the lives of more people, but not to suit our personal prejudices. And, by the way, nobody is completely free of prejudice. Nobody.
I still remember several years go driving on the freeway, wandering in the wilderness of my own mind, when it alit on a prejudicial thought, some stereotype of a group; I honestly don’t remember now who. I thought, “Oh man, after all these years I still haven’t expunged prejudice from my mind.” Then I remembered even farther back, to 1993, when I was involved with the Jackson County Human Rights Coalition.
A political group called the Oregon Citizen’s Alliance was pushing a Measure 9 that would have turned lesbians and gay men into second-class citizens and embedded bigotry in the Oregon Constitution. It failed in Oregon but, despite our efforts, passed in Jackson County. We had many late-night strategy sessions when we asked ourselves just what prejudice is and where it comes from. We decided then that erasing prejudice from our psyches was a lifelong endeavor. In the car on the freeway, I saw that I had work to do and always would have. Expunging prejudice in ourselves indeed takes a lifetime, but some people nurture that prejudice into an ideology. Tragedy inevitably follows. It’s good to remember that people of other ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, and so on also want stability and predictability in their lives.
Although labels and categories are often necessary to comprehend our world, we sometimes use them to distance ourselves from, and ultimately diminish, who or what we don’t like or don’t understand. We dislike ambiguity and use these labels to solidify people into stereotypes. It’s so much easier to call someone or some group a name rather than grant them the same subtlety and complexity in their lives that we experience in our own lives.
We want life to be simple and relatively effortless and not require us to make psychic space for others who may be a different ethnicity, have different customs or religions or have different sexual proclivities. We just want to be comfortable and not be “put upon” and be asked to to exert the effort to accommodate their ways. “Can’t those people just go away?”
Since that day on the freeway, I have worked to recognize prejudice in my own thinking. Foremost it requires being honest with myself. We humans are expert at self-deception. We must be patient and keep digging and be willing to look at our dark side. The great paradox of life is that we are all completely unique and yet, deep down, we are of the same essence, which we need to recognize.
The challenge, then, is to feel secure enough in ourselves that we can open our hearts and minds to others who are different than us. Peace in our time depends on it.
An active Buddhist for many, many years, David Kennedy is a native Oregonian. Many of his writings have been published in the Mail Tribune and elsewhere.
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