How A Little Self-Reflection Can Unite Our Divided Nation
Our air right now is thick with momentum, amidst the clash of a viral illness and a viral movement for change. The pandemic has left us far too starved for human connection to let the winds of change pass us by alone and silent. We’re a deeply divided country, desperate to grasp some strand of unity wherever we can find it. In anguish. In protest. But most likely, in self reflection.
There’s an undeniable divisiveness among us, propelling us into a phase of discomfort that offers no refuge in apathy or indifference. It’s 2020 and inaction is as defining as action. Racism and hate need to be dismantled, starting with the ideologies that perpetuate them. To live in harmony with each other, just as the true natives of our land once lived with nature, we must look at ourselves with honesty and openness. This is the only way to heal our nation. I believe we can do better now. We just need to take a good hard look at ourselves.
Be curious, not judgmental
The cracks in our fragmented society run far too deep to be covered up with feeble excuses for inequality, or blatant denial of it. To mend our nation we need to dig deep into the ugliest, most uncomfortable layers of ourselves; our own belief systems. We must peel away the layers of separateness, let go of judgment, and simply examine ourselves and our inner circles.
Let’s be honest. Most of us are living in a protective little bubble of people just like us; our circles of sameness. Examine the members of your own circle. Consider what they value; who they love and fear; for whom they pray and for whom they vote. Are they safely similar to you? What about those outside your circle? Look beyond the perimeter of that circle, the line that separates you from the others.
Recognize the act of othering
We must delve into the concept of othering; seeing another person or group as intrinsically different to oneself. When we other, we create an ingroup and an outgroup. We feel a sense of solidarity and loyalty to our ingroup, and a sense of separation from the outgroup. For every problem in our nation, there is abundant blame. Who gets blamed and who does the blaming simply depends on the group with which we identify. Othering, while creating the facade of belonging, simultaneously creates a tragic paradox. It excludes the others. You can be sure that each of us, at some point, will be among the others.
Lose the labels
The only way to unite this angry country is to stop focusing on our differences; the way the others look, dress, vote, speak, love, and fear. When we fixate on the otherness of the others, we justify their separateness, and we begin to feel threatened by them. We fear them, and foster a need to defend ourselves from them. We label them as criminals, failures, racists, liberals, conservatives, socialists, idiots. We subtly dehumanize them and detach ourselves from them. When we engage in this act of othering, we degrade our society and promote disconnectedness. Othering is crippling America.
Question your beliefs
We can’t eradicate racism and separateness without addressing the fears and values buried deep within us. We must examine our subtle underlying thoughts and beliefs; the stories we keep on hand to justify the otherness of the others. We tell ourselves they’re dangerous, useless, cruel, racist, senseless. But we fail to see our own hate and divisiveness. Hate, even toward a hater, is still hate. Hate can never cure racism, whether it’s for people we see as black, brown, white, blue, invisible, or simply different. Humans are wired for connection and belonging, not for hate. We learn hate, and we can absolutely unlearn it! We need to recognize it to dismantle it. The end game is not to admonish all the haters, it’s to take responsibility for our own destructive beliefs about others, and transform them. There’s no shame in owning our mistakes and learning from them. This is how we transcend hate.
Our circle of sameness has immeasurable influence over our beliefs. Dare to step outside your circle, and connect with the others. See them. Hear them. Listen up and listen hard, not just to the people with whom it’s easy to agree. Daryl Davis, a courageous black jazz musician, dared to walk into a dangerous world of hate. In doing so with authentic empathy and fortitude, he ultimately influenced over 200 KKK members to leave the klan. His first step was in listening, then hearing.
Acknowledge all oppression
We don’t need to measure or compare oppression. Historically most groups have been marginalized and oppressed within their cultures. There’s no badge of honor for who’s suffered most. It’s vital that we take notice of those whose pain and struggle is most relevant right now. This doesn’t make your oppression or that of your ancestors any less valid. Acknowledging that black lives matter doesn’t imply that other lives don’t. It affirms that black lives are and have been at risk. Lives, like all things, matter most in the moment that they’re scarce or threatened. A stable job, good health, a safe home, hand sanitizer, face masks, even toilet paper matter most when they’re gone or at risk of being gone.
Find common humanity
To transcend oppression, we must focus on what unites us. The big and meaty stuff. Our common fears and vulnerabilities and dreams. The irrefutable love we have for our children and loved ones. The agonizing fear we have of losing them or seeing them hurt. The incessant joy and hope and insecurity and inspiration and burden and suffering we all experience as humans. We all yearn for love. We all suffer from fear. If we refuse to see this universal thread of humanity, we’ll remain a nation of broken pieces, and live as detached fragments of a very angry America. I recently spoke about the state of our country with the mothers of two boys. One has a son who’s a young white police officer; the other, a black college student. Both women expressed the chronic fear they have for their sons’ safety as each one ventures into adulthood. These are two women from different walks of life, but whose words were almost identical. In the eyes of these mothers I saw the exact same limitless maternal love and eternal worry, that which I hold for my own children. We are all these mothers. We are all their children. There is no use for hate between any of us.
Recognize anger and release fear
Hate and separateness cannot be conquered with more of the same. They must be fought by opposing energy. We can celebrate our uniqueness without oppressing or negating that of others. We are the others. The purpose of being one great nation is to share an abundant and even playing field. If this idea brings you any discomfort, consider why. Does it take away your sense of safety, control, advantage, or perhaps your anger? No judgement, just observation. If you peel down the layers, you’re likely left with fear of losing something. I’ve listened profoundly to the empty reasoning behind some angry people’s refusal to wear masks during the pandemic. It seems selfish and absurd to most of us, but it’s deeper than that. It comes down to a fear of not having control. Deeply fearful people will risk the lives of others to avoid facing their fear of losing their sense of control. Fear is generally the basis of anger and hate. Get to know your anger and your hate. It often hurts other people, but it always eats away at you. Releasing anger, and ultimately fear, doesn’t make us more vulnerable. It makes us more connected. It levels the playing field, making it safer, more loving, more productive, more humane. An even playing field doesn’t prevent us from thriving. It creates a bigger group with whom to thrive. Enlarging our ingroup is how we fight racism. And pandemics.
Notice the hate within
Be passionate about ending racism, but also be wary not to create new hate in the process. Destroying racism means enlightening and transforming racists, not becoming them under a different guise. Hate toward any human or group is hate toward humanity. Our goal should be to observe, understand, educate, and improve. Not to hate. Hate cannot conquer hate. Compassion and inclusiveness can. Sometimes this means detaching from being right, justified, and increasingly angry. Focus on being open and productive. We can speak and reveal the truth relentlessly, gain understanding and momentum and passion, and do it all without anger.
Choose passion over anger
There’s a fine line between passion and anger. Both are feelings of intense emotion. Passion is rooted in love or desire for something, while anger carries hostility. Anger is directed toward something or someone, but it destroys you. Anger is contagious. If you don’t believe me, watch the news or get married. Whether your anger is for a spouse or an opposing group, it will escalate unless at least one side releases it. If you win a battle by means of rage or anger, you’ll always have another fire to put out later.
Releasing anger is pure freedom to the body and mind. It makes space for compassion. Consider Nelson Mandela. He refused to degrade himself to avenge or hate his oppressors. In 27 years of imprisonment, he grew compassionate, wise, and highly self aware. He knew hate and anger only weakened him, and he found the wisdom and restraint to let go. Anger may well be an easy emotion to latch onto, but it’s exhausting to sustain. Compassion takes much more effort to grasp, but it’s painless to sustain. Our country will heal when we learn to replace the anger with compassion. We can start with ourselves, using concepts like mindfulness and empathy.
Mindfulness techniques like self reflection and focused attention are a means to releasing anger and finding inner freedom. Mindfulness teaches us how to still our mind, release fear-based thoughts, and find the space for compassion. Mandela turned a barren prison cell into a space for mindfulness. In “Mandela The Authorized Biography” Anthony Sampson writes of Mandela’s words, “at least, if for nothing else, the cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you.” Mandela developed the best in himself from a concrete jail cell. When he became President of South Africa in 1994, he alienated nobody, not even his former captors. In turn, they learned compassion and humility from him.
Be wary of absolutes
We must harness empathy as we open up, speak up, and listen up in this moment of divisiveness. We must give others the space to hear and to be heard. It’s time we look each other in the eyes, and see beyond brutal nicknames and prejudice. We must be wary of absolutes. Nobody is all good or all bad. Those who aim hate at any group of people cannot dismantle racism. We are all connected by humanity, even to the most seemingly distant others. The courageous Daryl Davis knew this when he reached out to members of the KKK. He rose above fear and hate. He had every reason to justify both, but he didn’t. He found limitless empathy, and sought human connection. We can learn from him, and make an effort to see ourselves in everyone.
3 Daily Practices for confronting racism:
- Begin a regular practice of self awareness
- Focus on finding compassion
- Operate with an intention of inclusion
Share your growing wisdom with your inner circle, and expand your circle. It may feel uncomfortable, but progress always is. Discomfort lays the path for growth and for releasing what no longer serves. Let go of grudges, judgement, and seeking otherness in others. You can embrace your own uniqueness and ethnicity while simultaneously celebrating that of others. Just be your highest self. Be the example for the human race; our shared and sacred race. Let’s unite America, so we can take pride when we look in the mirror.