I was talking with a wise, insightful sixteen-year-old client the other day about what it takes to be a good person, and he observed that it wasn’t hard to do.
You just have to realize that there is not much of a difference between you and anybody else.
Out of the mouths of babes, huh?
I think this falls into the category of simple not being easy. It’s simple to toss a ball through a hoop…not a complicated idea. Yet it is not easy. Especially not for me! It’s a simple idea to be loving and kind, but it gets complicated when people disappoint us, annoy us, hurt us, or simply get in our way.
I told a friend about my client’s comment and she recommended I listen to a Ted Talk by Jim Ferrell called Resolving the Heart of Conflict, which was about this very thing. About how we make up stories about others to justify the way we treat them. These stories convince us that they are them and we are us and those two things are different, and this enables us to treat them as if they are objects.
But they are not. We are actually all quite alike. I see it every day in my work with clients and when I talk with friends and family. The stories are unique, but the struggles and suffering are so very much the same. Rather a paradox, no?
I’ve read a lot about racism and polarization these past few years. And the common denominator in most atrocities is the dehumanization of the other. They are animals or body parts or all kinds of derogatory assignations, but the essential point is that they are not us. And shamefully, I have done it myself. The ways in which I described our previous president, for example. Definitely dehumanized him, although I’m not really ashamed of that one because he deserved it. But really, isn’t that where it all starts? Convincing ourselves that it’s okay in this case. This case is different because in this case, it is true…this person/these people really are beasts, or aliens, or monsters. But it still tears us apart, and it dehumanizes both them and us. Why not settle on DT being a bad person? Is it not sufficient to view him as an actual human being who has done many terrible things and should be held responsible for his behavior, just like any other person? No need to demonize. The truth of the matter is enough.
How often do we walk around thinking “I would never do that,” or “How could they?” This is something else I see and hear every day. In fact, none of us have any idea what we would do in any given situation until we are in that situation. Saying “I would never” is a way of setting them as different from us. Which we often do because we are scared and want to believe that we are different, and thereby we could not end up like them. But our spouse could cheat. Our child could become an addict…or worst, republican! We use black-and-white thinking to manage our anxiety about the unpredictability in the world but it is flawed thinking, so it doesn’t really work.
My client’s original point remains. Anything can happen to anyone, proving we are all human, all essentially the same at our core. We all want love and belonging, health and safety, security and happiness. So maybe we can work on looking for those similarities rather than focusing on, or inventing, the differences.