Embracing the Humanity of Others

Even though I typically deal with individuals in my office, I’m acutely aware that I’m not just having a conversation with the person sitting in front of me.  That person brings with her all of her experiences to date – experiences with family, friends and others with whom he’s connected, as well as experiences from institutions such as churches, schools, businesses  where he’s worked or those that serve him in some way. She also brings in her experience with our larger culture – the institutional biases that permeate our environment.

In the current political and social climate, the bandaid has been ripped off a gaping wound in our country. This is such a delicate and hurtful issue for all of us. I’m talking about the “ism” issue in all our lives.

I want to make something clear at the beginning. I’m not wanting to preach here.  I’m no different from anyone else. We all have biases. As babies & young children, we don’t see differences, but as we are socialized, they become a part of how we experience life. As we mature emotionally and socially, it becomes a tendency for us to begin to put things, experiences and people into categories to make sense of them. It can be helpful to put things into categories because it really can aid us in understanding and approaching issues better. It can help us evaluate if things we are dealing with in our own lives fit the norms that others are also managing. It gives us a sense of security and life feels so much more organized when we can put things, thoughts and people into compartments – labeled right or wrong/good or bad/like me or different.

But many of our behaviors are driven by fear-oriented patterns of thought. In my business, the purpose of diagnosing is to give us a structure from which to work. I personally don’t like to label a client unless I have to, because it also can blind us to other aspects of the person. (I have worked in agencies where therapists and docs talked about “that borderline”  or “the addict” as if that’s the whole of who that person is). So the problem arises either when we become too rigid with our categories; or when the fear gets so strong that we feel a need to protect ourselves – eventually morphing into hatred, which gives us a false sense of power.

I’m not going to ask you to agree with me on this issue.  I respect your right to believe however you believe. But once again, as we’ve seen more recently, it’s when those beliefs lead to derogatory comments and explosive behaviors that harm – and sometimes kill others.

First, I want to say I strongly believe in the need to openly discuss such things, or we’ll never move forward on them. To make that happen, we have to know what our intention for the conversation is.  If it’s to prove who’s right and who’s wrong, I’m out.  But if we really want to come to an answer that might make it better, or at least get us started in that direction, then we have to focus, not on what was done to who in the past, but on where we are now; and to LISTEN with the aim of understanding more about the other person and why they feel and behave the way they do; rather than coming up with our defense in our heads while the other person is talking. Most of us know this process as conflict resolution. In Brene Brown’s book BRAVING THE WILDERNESS, she borrows a term from a colleague, Michelle Buck –  “Conflict Transformation.” I love this term. It implies the healthy aspect of communication – it can transform the relationship(s). But transformation is also an ongoing process.

When we are talking about a difference of opinion, it’s sometimes contentious and uncomfortable, especially these days.  But sometimes the real issue behind the original beliefs is more than a difference of opinion. That’s what gets overlooked in altercations. As  humans we have many more similarities than we have differences.  But we are choosing to focus on those differences, without the will to do anything but bitch at, or about “the other side.” Under the surface, this comes from our need to belong – to have a tribe with which to identify. Again, this is a safety need we all have,

To have a real conversation about it is difficult, messy and scary. (I have to admit, just posting this blog makes my heart race a little, because I’m sure there will be opposition. But because I believe nothing will change until we can talk about it, I’m plowing ahead).

Why do we have such a difficult time accepting those who are different from us?  When we go to the store (or these days, shop online) we usually enjoy looking through all the choices of brands, sizes, colors & prices. It’s part of the attraction to shopping.  We get to pick the item that best fits our needs or that we find the most attractive in some way. And even if we don’t like some of the items we didn’t buy, we can at least be grateful to have all the variety from which to choose – or life would feel pretty boring. If you think about it, the way we are as human beings is similar. We all come from the same factory – we just have different packaging. It’s part of what makes our culture interesting and more perfect. Having grown up in an environment where I saw no diversity, except for the Amish who rode my school bus with me, I am excited and inspired by my connections with those who come from completely opposite geographical & philosophical backgrounds.

People who protest are typically energized when they perceive or experience an injustice of some kind. For instance, it is a fact that more people of color are arrested, get harsher sentences and and are more endangered by police and others just because of their skin color, or they are refused service because they may not look or sound “American.” But it’s not just people of color. Over the past few years we’ve heard a lot about the bathroom issue that affects transgender people, and many in the LGBTQ community are refused services in shops, and mosques and churches are being burnt down or their members are mocked and shot . Those who believe our country is supposed to exhibit equality often become angry when they see what they deem as unfair treatment.

I understand you may not agree that people of these groups, and more are being treated unfairly, but unless you are a member of one these marginalized groups who has lived in this country, it may just not be your experience That doesn’t mean it’s not happening. (And just because I don’t like how many of my black friends have been consistently treated by the police, that doesn’t translate to “I hate all police officers.” I have had experiences with police officers personally and as clients, and have found each of them to be extremely dedicated and devoted to protecting all of us, regardless of who we are, how we look or how we worship. I have nothing but respect for those who put their own lives on the line every day. But, just like there are poor therapists, grocery clerks and accountants – there are police who do not represent the quality and integrity of the majority).

If we think the real issue is just about patriotism or the belief that people & organizations that champion the rights of marginalized groups are unfairly affecting our rights as straight, white citizens; we need to think again. My experience is that protestors and organizations that work towards equal rights actually honor what our country stands for BECAUSE they are taking advantage of the rights our constitution spells out.

Many of us (myself included) have been guilty of not exercising our rights. We have become complacent because of our privilege. We are blind to what happens daily to others who don’t have the advantage of being a caucasian (or male/straight/able-bodied/Christian, etc). If the concept that there even is such a thing as white privilege is offensive to us, we are either 1) a member of an extremely small group who has never experienced the pain of prejudice or 2) we are complicit in perpetuating the problem.

As I’ve implied, hate begins as fear. Someone who is different shows up in our lives, and we feel our way of life threatened because we don’t understand them. (Change can be really scary, but it can also be liberating). Let me suggest something that helps me. Look them in the eyes. Try to see beneath the color, gender or accent to the person. Listen to what they have to say – and try to hear beneath the words to the emotion and experience. Ask questions about their family or lives. Tell them about yours. Start a conversation. Don’t give the fear the opportunity to develop into hate.

My purpose for writing this blog is two-fold.  First, I have become very distraught by the things I see and hear on TV and social media. Even when I might agree with the perception expressed about certain public figures; if the comment is derogatory, it still upsets me. That’s the point of this whole blog. No one deserves to be diminished – and none of us knows when we will be the one(s) who are under some vicious attack. As a therapist, I have had the privilege of vicariously seeing the world through the eyes of many people who don’t look like, believe like, act like or love like I do.  They have taught me that we all have the same needs and rights.  Second, I know the only way we will ever change any of this is if we begin to communicate, holding each other at the same level of respect.

So when clients come into my office, I pledge to continue to look them in the eye and meet them where they are – to  HEAR what they are experiencing, whether I agree with them or not; because their experience is their reality, and if they can experience someone who will honor that, maybe their reality will change a little.

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Those we’re told to hate: Throughout our history, there has been a long list of those we’ve been conditioned to hate. The British, French, Spanish, Germans, Japanese, Russians, Communists, North Koreans, Vietnamese, Iranians Taliban and both northerners and southerners in our own country are some of the people we’ve been encouraged at various times to call enemies and to hate. The list is long, and as time passes, those we were assigned to hate we later were told should be removed from our hate list.

The enemy is obviously hatred itself.

-Wayne Dyer