I caution everyone who reads this to be careful what you wish for. This, of course, is not original to me. People say it all the time with varying levels of sincerity and differing intonations. I say it, today, from my own experience of having wished, for the last year, for something that has brought me to a place of tenderness that is surprising even to me. Let me explain. For the last year I have dedicated myself to deepening my contemplative experience in order to feed a hoped-for growth in my ability to greet the world with non judgmental awareness and radical acceptance. There are many motivators of this quest for me. Some are deeply personal and others professional. Some are related to my faith and spirituality and others simply to my humanity. I fail often in my efforts. In fact, for every inch of forward movement toward these goals I face ways in which I am entirely failing. Sometimes it can be discouraging.
There are a few outward markers of mu journey. I try to write, now, with capital letters because I have come to know that it makes reading easier for people who are dyslexic. My language has (mostly) changed to (hopefully) reflect my attempts to listen better and not let my bias’ render me deaf. Mostly, however, the reality of what I’ve wished for has changed me deeply inside. This is not without cost. I’ve had to ask for a lot of forgiveness for things I’ve said or done in the past. I’ve also had to ask for a lot of grace as I try to learn and catch up and listen. I’ve developed a keen ability to bite my tongue and excuse myself to catch a breath before responding and, possibly more than anything else, I’ve become incredibly sensitive to name calling and stereotyping. Everywhere I look I see these behaviors in spades. In mass media, on Facebook, in tweets, from pulpits and street corners and stages. Certainly in presidential debates. Name calling and stereotyping are some of our best skills as Americans, it seems.
Recently, a friend recounted an encounter he had with a person who launched a conversation with “I don’t know why poor people don’t...” My friend was perplexed and disappointed. Lumping a massive demographic into a title like “poor people” and then stereotyping their choices doesn’t leave much space for empathic connection. And yet we do it every. single. day. over. and. over. and. over. “How can those stupid liberals...?” “Why don’t those entitled millennials...”
A billboard near my house says, “If you know the answer, ask bigger questions.” I had a gazillion questions I would have liked to have posed to the person my friend was talking with. Do you mean poor in relation to money? Are there other forms of poverty in your world view? Can you direct me to some sources that inform your claims about this group of humans? Do you know anyone personally who is part of this group you are speculating about? Can you help me understand where you’re coming from?
Whenever we refer to people in terms of their association with a named group we reduce them to whatever our own knowledge or stereotype of that group is. I know about this because I’ve lived from this space. Like so many of us, I emerged from my childhood with some deeply destructive and horribly divisive beliefs about several groups of people that weren’t like me. These beliefs lead to fear which caused me to stay away from meaningful interactions that would have the power to break through my lump them and judge them mentality. As I moved through life and pushed past my fear I began to find my way to the complicated reality that my own privilege and bias’ had prevented me from seeing the inaccuracies of my assumptions. In the more recent past I have come to see the many ways that I do this even today. I assume that my values are the most important ones and judge others accordingly. I am attached to my own world views and find it easy to write off those that disagree as ill-informed, poorly intentioned, or worse. These are the patterns I am wishing to change and this wish is deeply reforming me. While it is incredibly disruptive to consider people and their ideas in an open-hearted, respect- worthy, and love-read way, I believe that the disruption is worth it. Seeing others (especially those others that I most disagree with or who are least like me) for the beautiful and vulnerable souls that they are makes for a messy, deep, meaningful, rich existence.
In the fall I had the distinct privilege of spending a day in Ferguson, Missouri with my friend Chris. Chris grew up in Ferguson and returned to nearby St Louis after college. He is a person whom I love and also one I admire. He works for justice and peace even when it is costly and uncomfortable. Chris has spent the last year investing a huge bulk of his time in his community, working to raise awareness of the injustices and oppression faced by the black community there. As we walked through the city I was deeply undone by the reality of the racial and economic divides I witnessed and by the utter care he communicated for everyone we encountered (and we met up with people from all sides of the issues). As a gay, white man raised in the Southern Baptist tradition he has every reason in the world to feel entitled to judge and rail. To lump and judge. To name call and react. He, himself, has been stereotyped. He has been called names and been judged and responded to as a member of a “group.” Instead, he simply pushes forward, committed to loving and to working for others to be freed from the oppression they experience at the hands of those who have conveniently compartmentalized them out of their awareness. The way he loves is by asking bigger questions and by pushing into uncomfortable spaces.
Later, Chris encouraged me to visit Creative Reaction Lab's IMPTXDESIGN, an interactive exhibit in St. Louis where the themes of oppression, segregation, violence, stereotypes, and fear were explored. Creative Reaction Lab is a social impact design collaborative whose mission is cultivating creative leadership to improve the human experience. In one particularly powerful installation, cookie cutter people forms filled a blackboard. Instructions were given to use chalk to demarkate your own person, listing first “3 ways in which you are stereotyped” followed by “3 things that are true about you.” The stories told in those images and words were profound. While all kinds of assertions filled the fist set of lines the second set was filled with emotional realities. Fear, sadness, insecurity, confidence, wishes, dreams, and more. The stereotypes shut down awareness and the truths opened them up.
I am inspired by this. It’s the opposite of name calling. When we reduce someone to a simple name or assumption about them (often prescribed in impulsive or less-than-thought-through ways), it is frighteningly easy to turn and walk away from them. We call them a name, declare that status as “other” than ourselves, and run. “I’m not like them.” “People like that are all alike.” “Those (fill in the name of the group) are all (fill in the name calling).” When they are so easily dismissed, we are so profoundly let off the hook of doing the hard work of making the world a more connected and, therefore, peaceful place.
The easiest way to live is one wherein our assumptions rule our sense of truth. We assume that everyone is well treated. That everyone has the same opportunities and simply stewards them well or not. That all people have access to the same resources that we do financially, socially, emotionally, and more. It’s simple if we imagine that racial bias doesn’t exist, that privilege applies to all regardless of skin color, political or religious ideation, or sexual orientation, and that every person receives fair treatment in all circumstances, no matter what. The world seems equally simple when we imagine that all members of certain groups are exactly the same. It’s easier to relate to others based on who we stereotype them to be than to see them as the real and complex individuals that they are, facing all manner of difficulties that we have never even considered. From this perch we can decide whether they are all in or all out. ‘Nuf said.
The other day I happened upon a difficult and painful story from a major, trusted news outlet. It was an incredibly well presented assemblage of stories about how Muslim parents talk with their children about violence. It was deep and rich and thought provoking. It set off in me a deep (and inconvenient) sadness for all parents who have to find ways of talking about the many horrific complexities that exist in our world with children who deserve peaceful communities and spacious love. I found myself wishing that everyone on earth would read this piece and mull on it, letting it break through any stereotypes it could for the purpose of greater respect of the complexity of life. This article cut through the kinds of stereotypes which end up keeping us from having to think and stretch, from needing to work at respecting others for the full global siblings that they are to us. Name calling, and the compartmentalizing it leads to, keeps us from every having to think past our selves and stretch into healthier co-existence. Exposing ourselves to new truths about those we have compartmentalized does the opposite.
To grow into the mature people we wish to be we may need to risk the uncomfortable spaces of not being so sure. It may sound ridiculous, but it’s important that we face that not all blondes are dumb. Not all skiers hate snow boarders. Not all engineers are recluses. Not all gun owners are ill informed. Not all police officers use unneccessary force. Not all Christians are loving nor are all Muslims violent. There is no such thing as a “female” or “male” brain. All families whose stories include divorce are not “broken.” The person you consider overweight is likely not lazy. Some artists are not flighty. A person’s affiliation with a political party does not define their intellect, faith, or integrity. In reality, no person can be reduced to their identification with a group or the names we are tempted to assign to them. When we allow space for these truths, and all the others like them, we can no longer live from an “I am right/good” and “They are wrong/bad” mentality. Instead, we open the door to a wider consideration of our shared humanity with the very people we are tempted to reduce to names and/or stereotyped groups. It’s harder to dismiss someone out of hand when we actually stop and realize that, underneath our assumptions about them, lies a person with a beating heart, a complexity or spirit, and a mother. A person who, ultimately, needs love and connection and grace.
On a day where we, in America, honor the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., what might it be like for us to commit to moving past name calling? To stop judging others and to, instead, start asking more questions? I came across a tweet once that stated “Would the day be different if I said, ‘Look, Here comes an Image Bearer’ about every person I meet?” Said another way: How might our day be different if we said, “Look, YOU are a person, worthy of respect! We are both humans in need of connection and grace” to every person that we meet? What if, instead of assuming we have the answers, we ask bigger questions. Big enough questions to grow us and our chances for getting past our judgments and moving toward peace-leaning openness with our local and global neighbors.
When you hear yourself saying “Such and such is an idiot!” “So and so is clueless!” “All ‘people that are part of X community’ are completely ridiculous!” or “There is no space for those people at my table!” take a moment and ask yourself the following questions:
What has this person said or done that stirred a response in me?
What leads to the intensity of this response in me? What is my history with this topic or person?
What are my stereotypes about this person and the categories or groups of people to which he or she belongs?
What have I done to ascertain whether my stereotypes or ideas about this person are accurate and/or inaccurate? Have these efforts to understand been undertaken with an openness or a pre existing certainty that I am right?
How might I respond to this person or speak about them in ways that resist name calling and stereotyping? If I feel a strong leading to engage this person, how can I do so in such a way that i maintain respectful treatment of both myself and them?