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This week has been a week of looking at Differences.  The topic has come up several times as the Inclusion Network and Alexandria Technical and Community College present Created Equal: America’s Civil Rights Struggle Film & Discussion Series.  The first part of Abolitionists (a PBS Documentary series) was presented Thursday at Grand Arbor.  The remaining events will be held from 6-9 PM at Grand Arbor (4403 Pioneer Road SE in Alexandria, MN) on January 20th, 21st, 25th & 28th.

Apple and Orange difference

The Same or Different?

Watching the scenes from Abolitionists was disturbing, taking me back to the 1980’s when, as a college student, one of my elective classes focused on the PBS series Eyes on the Prize which reviewed the Civil Rights Struggle from 1954-1965. I remember being shocked that people in my own country, in the not so distant past, were capable of such acts against humanity.  I was embarrassed by what I saw.  I felt appalled to be white.  What could justify such inhumane treatment of people, simply due to the color of their skin which showed their “difference”?  Cruel. Hateful. Unbelievable.  And I was PISSED OFF that I never learned of any of this growing up as a child.  Why was no one talking about these atrocities?  How had I not been aware?

As events unfold on the news these days, many are wondering again at the atrocious treatment of people of color.  Black women dying in police custody, black men being shot in cold blood as they walk away from an officer, and the list goes on. And sadly, though many of us won’t believe it, things have been this way all along.  It’s just now, in a day of readily available technology, and an internet on which to spread this information, that we are able to learn about that in which we are not directly involved.  And we wonder why people of color are still angry. Hmmm.

Our discussion during the film study Thursday concluded in large part that the issue is not skin color or sex or age, though we all voiced examples of how each of these can create situations of difference.  The real issue is power in those who believe they are superior.  And it often comes down to who has the ability to enforce his place of power.  Men have long been able to overpower most women ~ it’s a matter of size.  Immigrants are often at disadvantage due to poverty, language barriers and a lack of connections.  They are often overpowered by natives… though this country showed, that is not always the case.  Those with money, weapons, power and brute force can and often do take.  Take charge, take resources, take advantage, and even take innocence.  But it’s more than just power.  Whether power is used to take advantage or abuse is a result of character.  And often abuse of power is based in fear. The discussion shared at Grand Arbor this past week was rich with evaluation of power, difference, and character.  Even those characters historically seen as benevolent or beneficial did not get off without being held accountable!  It was quite thought provoking and I encourage those who can to join us at the next event the evening of Wednesday the 20th.

As I spoke with friends about difference this week, so many stories arose.

Some shared about being the object of discrimination and comprehending how that feels to be the one hated for the color of your skin.  I remember being the only white student at a Society of Black Engineers meeting and comprehending the daunting feeling of being the sole person who was different on that easily observed trait of skin color.  I didn’t attend again… though I’m not sure now if it was not wanting to face that feeling or not wanting to feel like an invader.  I know how important it can be to have space where there is unity that feels safe.  I recall 12-step meetings being split into male and female, especially when new people would arrive for a first meeting.  There was controversy about this among the group but many, especially the women, felt it was important as we knew how hard it was to share openly, to be vulnerable, in a mixed sex group.  This was especially difficult if one had been the victim of rape or abuse by the opposite sex.  I imagine today this gets even more complicated as there is such a widening understanding of gender compared with where we were in the last century.

One friend noted a recent posting on FB about being non-racist or anti-racist: https://www.facebook.com/theguardian/videos/10153870551066323/?theater

After which I found this… also quite powerful: https://www.facebook.com/OccupyDemocrats/videos/1042823995810654/?theater

Some of my friends noted how even simple differences in how we interact with the world can create difficulty in relationships.  If one is more talkative and one more quiet, if one is more organized and one more cluttered, if one likes a disciplined approach to resolution and one prefers a chaotic and creative way, all these can make working together successfully more of a challenge.  Aren’t we all more comfortable with our own ways?  Am I the only one who likes being “right”?  I read recently in a new book Living Your Yoga: finding the spiritual in everyday life by Judith Hanson,

“How human of me to want to be right.  How human of you to resist being wrong.”

But I’ve learned that my “right” idea isn’t always the best idea and often, it is more interesting and enlightening to see all sides of an issue.  I’ve learned that our perspectives of the world are skewed by our experience, understanding and position.  And since each of us is an individual, our views of the world are all different, in many ways.  And that is what brings a lot of the joy and beauty to this world.  But, yes, much pain and conflict too.

Yet some shared about experiences of finding hope in situations where people with obvious and potentially overpowering differences were able to transcend them and find joy and brotherhood.  Instead of focusing on the differences, the focus was on the similarities.  Instead of seeing the difference in race or culture, it was acknowledged that everyone was present for a joyful meal and celebration.  When the focus was on the love and comradery, the differences fell aside becoming inconsequential.  What if we could all do this?  Look for the commonality and the shared purpose rather than the ways we worship a higher power or the clothes we wear or how we speak.  Aren’t we all flesh and blood?  All striving to find love and acceptance?  All wanting the best world for ourselves and our children?  All hoping to have enough?

And here is where the fear often arises.  What if I don’t have enough? So we hoard for our family… for our tribe.  We don’t share as much as we could.  What if I run out!?!  It takes me to thoughts of an old scripture (yeah, I had to look this up but I recall it from an epiphany had during my days as a Presbyterian):

For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you?   Matthew 6: 25-30

I’m not so sure about humans being “worth much more” than birds or flowers.  Let’s face it, there’s a high possibility that we will destroy this planet’s ability to support mammals in the next 150 years but the trees will likely happily thrive once we’re gone.  And my preference today is to the idea that the Universe provides all we need… too much negative experience with organized religion.  But God or Universe, Allah or Buddha, Magic, Mother Nature or Random Chance, I find that I am often in possession of all I need, in fact, usually much more than I need.  But that’s a topic for another day.

Though we may be important enough for the Universe to provide, sometimes we also need to realize how inconsequential we can be.  One friend this week shared that he had bullied a girl in grade school and carried guilt with him for years.  At a high school reunion decades later, he sought her out to apologize, only to find that she didn’t remember him!  How often have we carried our own baggage of this sort?  Thinking our actions were so impactful and important, only to find that no one else recalled that thing we said or did?  Many times I have been shocked, in hindsight, by something I did and I wondered how the other person would ever forgive me.  As with my friend above, there are many remembrances that I’ve carried in dread while the other person was oblivious to the concern.

Alternatively, we sometimes do not realize the power we have in the lives of others.  I am certain I have been oblivious in saying or doing something that, to the other, was abhorrent.  While I have no recollection of the event, for them it is a recurring nightmare.  On the other hand, I have also been unaware of times I did or said things, oblivious to their impact, only to have someone tell me years later how important I’d been in their lives.  And I think of the many people who have impacted my life by little things said or done.

So what is to be done?  Should we worry about all we say and do, hoping we have no ill effect?  Or is there something to be said for the idea that we should not worry what others think of us?

I believe there is a middle ground.  Though we may work to live without harming others, inevitably, there will be some who see what we do as harming.  So we can be aware and open to discussion when these things arise.  Rather than denying that we have hurt someone when we are accused, we can ask for more input.  If they are hurt, it likely has more to do with them than us, but our willingness to listen and walk through the situation, seeing it from many sides, may bring the other to a place of understanding which dispels his hurt and anger.

In opening up to review our differences in perspective, we can come to a better understanding of each other.  We can begin to see the world through the eyes of another and help them to see a new way as well.  Each of us can come to a new perspective, more fully informed.  As long as we meet in love, share in hope and listen with an ear for understanding.