Updated: Oct 15, 2020
We live in unprecedented times. I really believe that this is a time for us, as individuals and as the human race, to learn some hard lessons. The chaos and anger we are witnessing is exposing our flaws and failings as a society. This, in turn, incites our fear.
In his essay, Thoughts in the Presence of Fear, Wendell Berry writes about the time directly after 9/11. But his words still ring true today:
“The aim and result of war necessarily is not peace but victory, and any victory won by violence necessarily justifies the violence that won it and leads to further violence…What leads to peace is not violence but an alert, informed, practiced, and active state of being.”
I and Thou
Our fear is fueling both physical and verbal violence. It fuels hatred, blaming, and bullying. It fuels reducing another person to an “It.” Martin Buber was an existentialist philosopher who spoke of two ways we interact with others—from a point of “I and Thou” or “I and It.” If we look at the Other as Thou, we treat the Other with respect and we acknowledge their innate worth. If we look at the Other as It, we debase them of their humanity, reduce them to an object, and can then justify our hatred and violence.
As we grapple with the chaos before us, we can choose how we will navigate this pain. We get to decide how we will show up, both individually and collectively. Do you want to show up with fear or with humility?
If we choose to show up with humility, I know we will make it. If we give in to the fear, well, let's just say I'm not so hopeful.
Living in a world where we reduce everything to an either/or, good/bad, binary condition creates the “Other.” The Other is the person who is not me. The Other does not think like me. The Other does not look like me. And the Other is anyone who does not believe like me.
This is dangerous territory. Such binary thinking only strengthens an “us vs. them” mentality. It lends itself to reduce the Other to an object, an It. This in turn creates fear of the Other. And in our fear, we justify violent words and behaviors.
If we are going to learn anything from 2020, it will require us to be humble. And in our humility, we will have to be brave. We have to be brave enough to admit we might be wrong. We have to be brave enough to step into another person’s shoes. And we have to be brave enough to make changes in our personal lives.
When you say, "I can't understand why someone would _________ (think/feel/act) that way! They are wrong." and that person says the same thing about you, our division only deepen. It is this inability and unwillingness to try and understand the Other that maintains the divide.
It happens on every side of every issue--be it the left, the right, between races and nations, in politics, or religion, anything we use to exclude others. I have spent a great deal of my life trying to see things from another person’s perspective, but I still find myself scratching my head and saying, "how can they believe that?! They must be crazy!...” It’s easier to fall into patterns of blame and shame rather than look for understanding. It takes very little energy to stereotype. Understanding someone takes a great deal of effort and energy.
Having a desire to understand
But what if we said, "I don't understand them, but I want to."
We just might learn something.
Understanding the Other is about perspective and the willingness to step into someone else's experience. It's about validating an experience that is different from your own. It's about believing another person's experiences. Just because you personally haven’t experienced something, doesn’t mean that no one else has; it doesn’t mean that experience is not possible. Have you ever climbed Mount Everest? If not, does the fact that you haven’t climbed it negate the experiences of those who have?
And here’s the thing: You can validate another person's experience/perspective and still disagree. Crazy thought, huh? I can validate the experience of someone who has climbed Mount Everest, listen to them, imagine the cold, the thin air, the exhilaration. And I can also disagree with them about something like whether or not there should be a limit on how many people can climb in any given year. But it’s important for me to realize that because I haven’t experienced it myself, I should listen carefully to that climber’s experience and find out their opinion, find out why they feel the way they do. I can humbly learn from their experience.
Taking time to listen to and understand someone else harms no one. There isn’t a downside to humbly listening to another person’s experience. There isn’t a downside to listening to my “enemy’s” experience. It’s possible to find out that the Other is more like me than I thought. And what if that’s true? That would truly be revolutionary.
In healing our communities and relationships we must let go of the need to be right. Certainty is based in binary thinking. If we are certain that our views are correct, then by extension the Other’s view is wrong. As Eckhart Tolle writes: “For you to be right, of course, you need someone else to be wrong, so the ego loves to make wrong in order to be right.” And the more we need to feel certain, the more dogmatic we become in our beliefs; in our need for certainty, we end up needing to justify our beliefs. The book, The Anatomy of Peace, from the Arbinger Institute,has a lot to teach us about ourselves and solving our conflicts peaceably. On believing "I am right," it reads:
“…the more sure I am that I’m right, the more likely I will actually be mistaken. My need to be right makes it more likely that I will be wrong! Likewise, the more sure I am that I am mistreated, the more likely I am to miss ways that I am mistreating others myself. My need for justification obscures the truth.”
If we can accept the possibility that we are wrong, then we will be more open to listening to the person we disagree with (or fear). Seeing things from another person's perspective takes practice. It requires us to suspend our judgment and be open to the possibility that we might be wrong. It requires us to set aside our fears. We must stop, listen, and think before we react. We must temper our words and move as far away from dogmatic rhetoric as we can. It requires us to slow down; to get curious about the Other as well as curious about ourselves. We need to question our knee-jerk feelings. It requires us to be an adult.
Not easy, I know.
Are you willing?
Learning to withhold judgment and step back to see things from another perspective takes a lot of practice. But just because it’s hard and it will take practice doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Start by asking yourself:
Am I willing to try to understand the Other?
Am I willing to suspend judgment?
Am I willing to believe someone’s experience, even if I’ve never had that experience?
Am I willing to see our similarities as well as our differences?
Am I willing to set aside my fear long enough to listen?
This is the beginning to reclaiming our humanity and healing as communities, nations, and as the world. It’s a long and hard road, but we have to travel on it if we want to reduce the violence, the fear, the divisions. We know that violence, binary thinking, and fear only deepens the divide, they do not heal. How badly do you want the chaos to end and develop a more understanding and equitable society? Are you willing to try something new? For the sake of every person on this planet, I hope we all are.