Embrace or Erase

I don’t know what it’s like to be pulled over by the police because that’s yet to happen to me as a driver. I especially do not know what it’s like to be pulled over as a Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, or person of any other race because that will never happen to me as a white man.

I’ve never had a talk with family about how I might be profiled, and how it’s essential to do everything exactly the right way (or better) so that I’m not persecuted or violated because that doesn’t happen to people with white privilege. I’ve been spit on a few times, and threatened with violence of various kinds, but I think that was more to do with people who were not of sound mind than expressing hatred for who I am. Those incidents were minor in comparison to what many Americans who are not white men experience. I can’t even begin to imagine what some people have gone through and continue to endure. We need more people to be able to tell their stories openly, and for their stories to be genuinely heard and addressed.

As much as I want to believe with President Obama that “we’re not as divided as we seem,” it’s nearly impossible to understate the tension–apparent or real–throughout the United States. Black men murdered during routine police calls, and officers gunned down are not isolated, one-off occurrences–they’re symptomatic of broader, embedded ways of thinking and acting.

Many of us are uncomfortable and even outright aggressive when we encounter difference, conflict, paradox, and contradiction as we cross paths with other people. Instead of allowing those instances to be an opportunity for deeper learning and greater humanity, we try and eliminate the tension in whatever way we can. Avoidance, belittling, ignoring, striking, disparaging, and more. By doing so, we dehumanizing ourselves and others.

In short, we erase instead of embrace.

As we bump into the lives of our fellow humans, we always have a choice. We can choose to learn from others, expanding our understanding and appreciation of the complexity and interconnectedness of all people. Or, we can choose to close up and try to shut down, minimize, and erase them–even to the most violent and complete erasure: murder.

Difference challenges us. For many, different means strange, repulsive, vulgar, or inferior. But different simply is different. We each have a history and identity that makes us distinct from any other human on the planet.

When we’re confronted by difference in other people, we are always at the crossroads of embrace or erase.

When you encounter someone who is of a different race, gender, religion, or another identifier, what if you saw that difference as an opportunity to grow in understanding and humanity?

They’re human and you’re human–just in different ways.

We’re hindered and shaped, of course, by history. Every previous act colors the present and how we perceive others. This is especially true if we perceive someone to be part of a group or the kind of person that’s a threat to us. White America perpetrated at least two original sins: the genocide and oppression of countless Native American tribes, and the incomprehensible horrors of Black slavery (there is also some overlap between the two). Those are just two broad sweeps of history among millions of other acts of inhumanity over the last few hundred years that have informed and patterned the present. Erasure has become structural and infiltrated all levels of American society. Blacks, Native Americans, women, people who are mentally ill, and others are still unequal and unjustly treated today. Not just by an ignorant asshole or two, but by the machinery of modern American society: economy, criminal justice, media framing and representation, healthcare, education, and the rest.

Acts of violence–citizen to policeman, policeman to citizen, or between anyone else–perpetuate and exacerbate distrust, and reduce the potential for embrace in future encounters.

For safety, we separate into ingroups and outgroups: us and them. If someone is us, we’ll start out more trusting. They’re less of a threat because they’re more like me. If someone is them, we’re wary from the get-go. This person is not really like me, so I need to be on guard.

To break through the history and the structural dehumanization, we will each have to be patient and attentive. We will have to lower our guard a bit and let difference, paradox, and conflict wash over us until our understanding is opened up and increased. We will have to get into the gritty realness of each other’s pain, oppression, uniqueness, experience, hopes, and fears. There will need to be some deep listening, owning up, apologizing, forgiveness, advocacy, and activism.

As such openness spreads through more and more individuals in one-on-one encounters, it will begin to permeate society at large. Not instantly, deterministically, or completely. But we need a steady, intentional movement of replacing structural erase with structural embrace. Neighborhoods to cities to states to the country as a whole (including social media and the rest of cyberspace).

That’s not to say it’s easy for anyone. It takes a tremendous amount of willpower to overcome experience, history, and what’s comfortable. Avoidance, belittling, violence–erase–are easier. Maybe even safer for you, though certainly not for the people you erase.

Embrace is our only hope, however difficult in practice, of moving toward a society that is more fully alive and flourishing. We each, ourselves, want a society where we feel safe, are able to openly be who we are, and receive respect from the rest of the community. That kind of society will never arrive without including, understanding, and empowering–without embracing–everyone we’ve deemed to be other. We’re all in this together.

 

We Are All Pretentious

As a kid, there’s probably no more interesting and vital place than the playground. There, budding youngsters experiment with all sorts of different versions of themselves. Queen of the castle. Thoughtful people-watcher. Superstar athlete. Goofball comedian. Alpha boy. And more.

By trying out various roles and interests as if they were costumes in a wardrobe, we begin to shape our identity—a richer and truer sense of who we are. This is a crucial part of growing from childhood into adulthood.

But for some reason, as soon as we enter the public square of adulting, trying things on is no longer praiseworthy identity experimentation. It is labeled pretentious. The young woman exploring the world of craft beer or wine is a snob. The student raving about up-and-coming indie bands is a hipster. The colorfully dressed urbanite is a narcissistic deviant. The Midwesterner who moves to the big city is an elitist dismissive of their roots.

Why do we encourage kids to try things out but condemn it in adulthood?

Condemn it in others, that is. We’re fine with it when we’re trying things out ourselves. If you’re eating through the city’s 10 best list, you just like new food in new restaurants. But as soon as someone else does it, they are a snobby foodie who thinks they’re too good for other people and other places to eat.

We seem to find it important to police other people. If there’s an apparent gulf between who someone is and who they’re trying to be, it’s some kind of social violation. Identity exploration has become so closely tied to elitism and otherness we can’t see it as something beneficial to growing as a person.

But pretense originally simply referred to pretending without all the other baggage. To pretend is not necessarily to be a narcissist, to think you’re better than everyone else, or otherwise. Snobbery, elitism, and self-inflation certainly do happen in the world. People unquestionably do things just to stand out from everyone else in a self-centered way. In a time of rampant materialism, conspicuous production and consumption are alive and well.

At its core, though, pretending—trying things on to see if they fit—is how we figure out what we like and who we are. We are all unique, sometimes weird, sometimes into things that other people can’t wrap their minds around. We should celebrate that in each other instead of castigating it.

Whether we’re the kid at play or the adult in the urban playground, we are all pretentious in some way. Acknowledge it and move forward. Let others try things on and figure out who they are—just as you do.

 

Tugging at the Tangle

Your life involves other people. It’s an unavoidable reality. Yes, we all need moments to ourselves, and there are times and places we can get it. But you cannot move through the world without encountering, affecting, and engaging others. Our actions and their outcomes don’t happen inside a personal bubble, separate from everyone else. We’re tangled together. “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world,” as John Muir poetically stated.

Perhaps this seems like an obvious observation. Unless a person lives alone in a cabin in the woods, of course life entails experiences with other people. Fair enough. But how often do we get so caught up in our own stuff that we don’t even think about the other people around us?

It’s easy to get self-absorbed. It’s easy to get preoccupied with the parts that only concern you. I need to get to that place. I need to finish this thing. I need that to feel better. I need this, and I need it to happen now.

But you don’t exist in isolation. You’re tied up with the rest of the world. Whether we’re paying attention to it or not, our actions have consequences for other people. To navigate that, we have to learn how to ask good questions.

It starts with one big one. Before everything you’re about to say or do, pause and ask yourself:

How will what I’m about to do affect other people?

It’s broad, for sure. But that’s the point. Asking it shakes you out of selfishness, narrow vision, or distraction, and begins to open your mind to what the people around you are doing and how you might be altering their experience.

When you ask the one question, others emerge that are variations on the theme.

Will what I’m about to do make someone feel ashamed of who they are?

Will it limit someone else’s chances for success?

Will it make someone feel like an outsider?

Will it make someone embarrassed to be associated with me?

Will it obstruct someone’s ability to complete things they need to get done?

Will it threaten someone’s health or safety?

Will it invite envy?

Will it cast someone in a bad light?

Will it violate someone’s trust?

Will it cause someone to worry?

Will it undercut someone’s joy?

And a million others. Maybe a few have already come to mind.

Most actions will involve several questions at once.

Yelling at someone you love is quite likely to cause a number of things to occur. Making them feel bad about who they are. Rattling their psyche and possibly making them feel like their safety is threatened. Violating their trust. Undercutting the joy they had been feeling.

A politician who acts in a racist or xenophobic or elitist manner is liable to damage the lives of thousands or even millions of people. Limiting their chances for success. Making them feel like they’re worthless or an outsider. Impinging on their safety. And more. People of power or prestige have a disproportionate impact–one person’s actions can shape the experience of numerous others.

But we don’t have to be popular or powerful for our actions to have significant consequences for others. When you gun through the yellow light, you may think you’re harmlessly getting somewhere a little quicker because you didn’t have to wait for the next light change, but it acutely threatens pedestrians and other vehicles. When you show up late or are off your game at work, it may feel like your workday is the only one that’s different, but it heavily burdens and frustrates your co-workers’.

With practice, the questions come faster and more focused. Throughout the day, we start to make better decisions. Interestingly, there’s often a heightened amount of health and happiness than had we approached things selfishly. You flourish more because you’ve done what you could to make sure others are flourishing around you. Human well-being does not have to be the zero-sum game it’s made out to be.

We are all tangled up together. What is your tugging doing to others?