Can we relate to the unthinkable?
My mom rarely recommends movies, so when she does, I pay attention.
The other day she told me that 12 Years a Slave was unforgettable and unforgivable, the former referring to the movie itself, the latter referring to the history. She talked about the rampant racism and how she couldn’t believe that it has continued throughout history.
I decided to do a reality check-in to examine some of my own thoughts and emotions about the situation.
When I think about the people who abused and tortured other humans during the slave trade, I imagine that they were ignorant, self-righteous and arrogant. I imagine that means that I am better than they are, and I am right (they are wrong). Because of these thoughts, I feel anger and resentment.
This got me thinking about the dangers of judging others, and how it disrupts my peace when I make myself right and others wrong, no matter how much the world agrees with me. It’d be really easy to focus on how awful racism is and how appalling racists are, but the moment I do that, I become prejudiced myself by thinking that I’m better than they are.
As long as I think I’m better than anyone in any way, I’m lying to myself and exercising intolerance.
My failure to recognize another person’s intrinsic value distorts my perception of my own value. When I think that they’re less than me, I make myself better than them, and bam! I’ve just told myself a tale that generates hatred.
The beautiful irony is that as soon as I think I’m better than someone else, I’ve established rapport with them. If I can let myself see this, I can remind myself of the truth, that both of us are equally valuable. In doing so, I can feel compassion and understanding.
They thought they were better than others. I can understand that. I just thought I was better than them, too. We were both lying to ourselves.
I can find equanimity in that.
“We are asked to forgive those who have injured us. Unless we have first judged and condemned them for what they did, there would be no reason for us to forgive them. Rather we would have to forgive ourselves for judging.” ~ One Day at a Time in Al-Anon
Coming to terms with the unthinkable internally before I respond externally helps me in two primary ways.
1. Finding peace of mind, so that I’m not constantly driven to the fear and anger that eat away at me.
I’ve spent most of my life living in overwhelming anxiety about the world, with its injustices, hatred and atrocities, which only led me to suicidal thinking.
Practicing strategies, like reality check-ins, allows me to process and understand my emotions so that they can move through me, rather than finding permanent residence and festering within me. That processing and understanding must begin before I can respond in a thoughtful and effective manner.
2. Providing me with understanding and compassion for others, so that it’s possible to effect real change.
Anger, in my experience, is a healthy emotion that signals my boundaries are being crossed. However, if I don’t take the time to first ask myself what my anger is about, then I react out of fear and confusion, which usually leads to nothing but more fear and confusion.
If I can relate to another’s thinking, try my best to understand where they’re coming from (because I, too, have felt anger and hatred, even if not at extreme levels) and remember that they are human, then I can come to know what their deepest fears are.
When someone I believe to be evil and intimidating becomes vulnerable, that is, I see what they fear, then they become human to me. This diminishes my need to react in fear. At that point, my anger has served as a healthy boundary so that I can more clearly communicate and work toward solutions with a clear mind. It helps me to come from a place of love and compassion in my actions and responses. The alternative is to let my anger build into rage and hatred, at which point I lose my own humanity, in which case everyone loses.
The truth is, I am powerless over the thoughts and behavior of others. I can’t go “out there” and stop racism. What I can do is go “in here,” within myself, and become aware of prejudices in my own thoughts and behaviors.
It’s only here, within myself, that I have the power to change the world. From the inside out.
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Apprentice Editor: Chrissy Tustison / Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Moyan Brenn via Flickr