Don’t Label Me

 

Yes, I know. I should not have been surprised. But I was stunned when someone learned one fact about me, and then, relying solely on stereotypes, proceeded to imagine a great many other things about me… most of which were untrue.

It happens with alarming frequency. We label a person. The human tendency is for our imaginations to fill in the blanks… often with that which we fear. We make assumptions about a person’s character, personality and beliefs, based on this label and what it is popularly believed to represent. Those assumptions may or may not be correct… but most people never bother to find out.

Often, the function of a label is establish division. It is a way of individuating oneself: establishing your own identity by highlighting how you are different from others.

Owning your own identity is a good thing. The problem comes when you try to shore up your identity, not just by having pride in yourself, but by denigrating those who differ from you… as if to say, “I’m good, and you’re not.”

This is not a new problem. People complain about it constantly. I hear many people bemoan the divisions in our country. Political differences, religious differences, cultural differences. Yet I hear very few go beyond talking, and actually try to do anything about it. For most people, bridging the gap and healing divisions seems to be about vanquishing the “other side.”

If we ever got honest enough to go out in the streets and uncover our common grief, we would discover that we are all grieving over the same things. –Miguel Unamuno

But here’s a secret. Believe it or not, it is possible to own your identity, to feel strong and confident about who you are and what you believe… without demonizing those who believe something else. Yes, as amazing as it might seem, you can treat someone with courtesy and respect even if you think that their values and beliefs are dead wrong. You can hold on to your own values, without compromising your beliefs, and still be friends with people whose values and beliefs are the opposite of yours.

Bridging that gap is not easy; it requires listening with an open mind. Instead of making assumptions about what someone believes, why not actually ask them? Why not find out what they believe? You might be surprised. You might even discover that you have more in common than you think.

This seems to be a difficult thing to do. The person who labeled me had no interest whatever in my beliefs. Their only interest was to say, in so many words, “You are not like me. I reject you.”

Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies. –Friedrich Nietzsche

As I’ve pointed out before, scientists have demonstrated that we are genetically more invested in winning arguments than in thinking clearly. Confronting this person would have been useless because they were entrenched, and unable to hear or see any reality other than the one they had created for themselves. So I remained silent. But there are a few things I would have liked to say:

You have NO clue what I believe.

I do not fit into most standard label categories. It’s almost impossible to label me as liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, Christian or agnostic, or any kind of class distinction. But somehow, you decided that I fit neatly into some category, and that, as a result, you know everything there is to know about me.

You are totally wrong.

Not only do you have no clue what I believe, you THINK that you DO know. Because of your mistaken certainty, your mind is completely incapable of discerning the actual truth. You have no curiosity at all, no desire to find out what is real. And that lack of curiosity has made you blind.

I know who I am. I know that your assumptions about me are wrong, mere fantasies concocted by your imagination. They don’t affect me. But they sadden me.

I feel sad for you, because you cannot see. I feel sad for our world, because this blindness is widespread and causes rifts that continue to deepen, spreading hostility, fear and pain to everyone.

But I’m not giving up on you. I’m holding out hope that one day you will find the strength to challenge your fears, and crack the closed door of your mind just enough to let in a little light. I’m holding out hope that in the end, love will be stronger than fear.

we were all just humans
And in the end, we were all just humans, drunk on the idea that love, only love, could heal our brokenness. –Christopher Poindexter

To Be Content

A news article I read today — the topic of which is not germane — reminded me of an observation.

I have observed that people who have everything often find it impossible to be content with what they have.

Conversely, it seems that those who have little are much more likely to feel and express gratitude for whatever they do receive.

An old proverb says, “The sated appetite spurns honey, but to a ravenous appetite even the bitter is sweet.”

Right now, for example, I am grateful simply to be on the internet so that I can write this blog. We take connectivity for granted… until we don’t have it.

I am fortunate.

Love Them Anyway

I had occasion to pass along this poem to a friend, and in so doing, discovered that the author has revised it slightly. I thought it a good occasion to reprise my blog post from three years ago, with the updated text. Enjoy.


love them anywayIt is a sad fact of life that “no good deed goes unpunished.”

Perhaps you have done a kindness by helping someone in need, as Androcles removed the thorn from the lion’s paw. But for every Androcles, whose lion repaid his kindness, there are ten who are attacked by the one they tried to help.

Some good Samaritans get so discouraged when this happens that they just give up, and stop helping others. If our motivation in doing kindness is to get a reward—even the reward of gratitude—we often will be disappointed.

Instead, we do kind things because that is the person we want to be. Do it for ourselves. Do it for our sense of self worth, our self respect. Do it for one’s own sake.

In his 1968 booklet, “The Silent Revolution,” Kent Keith advised, “give of your time and effort because you care and want to give, not because you are expecting anything in return… Do things because you believe in them, and the simple satisfaction of having achieved them will be enough.”

He goes on to admit that helping others often results in being attacked and mistreated by those you are trying to help. But his response was not disappointment. Instead, he proposed “Ten Paradoxical Commandments,” that rang so true even Mother Teresa posted them on the wall of her orphanage.

People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.

If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
Succeed anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.

People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
Build anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.

We show kindness to a lot of people on Littlefield Grid. We give of ourselves without any expectation of reward or profit. Sometimes, our kindness is repaid with gratitude. But that’s not why we do it. We extend kindness because that’s who we want to be.

Sometimes, we are repaid with thoughtlessness; and, on a few rare occasions, hurtfulness from the very people we helped. Thankfully, we have some terrific folks in our community, and that rarely happens. When it does, we could be resentful. But we aren’t. We keep right on extending kindness. And we always will.

We do it anyway.

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The Heart of the Matter

To me, love is everything.

The name of my blog, “the space between,” is a reference to that belief. Everything in this life that means anything at all happens in the context of relationship, that “space between” people. And not just people: creatures, groups, nations, objects, ingredients, relationship-scienceskills, elements, atomic particles, nature, physics, heavenly bodies, theories, emotions, opinions and ideas are what they are by virtue of their relationships. They may be relationships of love, friendship, opposition, attraction, admiration, reflection, negation, celebration or humiliation, but they are relationships nonetheless.

Nothing and no one exists in isolation. Everything and everyone is in relationship.

Our opinions and beliefs inhabit our relationships. Our convictions affect how we treat the people in our lives.

My most deeply-held convictions are expressed in a set of guiding principles by which I strive to live. Relationship is at the heart of those principles. I try to live a life filled with love and compassion. I seek and honor the goodness that is in every person as a reflection of divine love. I respect the dignity of every human being, whatever my relationship with them might be.

This is not some insipid, vacuous, feel-good idea. Love is a challenge. It is an urgent, important challenge. If I believe that the universe is built on relationships, what will I contribute to it? What world, what life, what relationships will I create? Will I love only those who love me? Can I love those who hate me? Can I find the presence of divine love in those who do harm? Can I respect the dignity of every human being, even those whose convictions arise from malice?

Yes, I can. It requires no small amount of mindfulness. But yes, I can see and honor the goodness in every human being, even when – like most of us – it is just one ingredient in a mix of hatred, pain, greed, fear, rage, and who knows what else. Human beings are messy. But there is always goodness in there. There is always something in them to love. I make the conscious choice to find it, honor it, respect it, and keep my attention on that above all else.

I do not turn a blind eye to hatred, deceit and malice. I do what I need to do to protect myself and those I love, and to serve justice. But whether or not I agree with someone’s ideology has little or nothing to do with my love for them. My loved ones represent a very broad spectrum of beliefs, opinions, and convictions. To quote Kent Keith and Mother Teresa: we are all unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered. I love anyway. I hope my loved ones love me anyway, too.

In time, one learns not to reduce humanity to white hats and black hats. One learns to tolerate ambivalence. I do love, and will continue to love, people who agree with me and people who disagree with me. I will consciously choose to respect the dignity of every human being, regardless of their beliefs and opinions. I will seek and honor goodness in all. I will love those who are given to me to love. I will strive to live a life of compassion and kindness, and nurture relationships into which I will pour every ounce of love I have to give.

Only in this way will I be the person I want to be.

To me, this is the foundation of everything.

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The Joy-Sorrow Chord

Although I mainly write about the virtual world in this blog, I just want to take a real-world moment to note, with deep sadness, the death of the great composer John Tavener, who was an enormous inspiration to me, both musically and spiritually. I had the privilege of meeting him twice, once when reviewing his Grammy-winning composition Lamentations and Praises, and again when reviewing his epic 7-hour all-night vigil Veil of the Temple.

Tavener lived much of his life close to death due to a serious heart condition, knowing that the end could come any moment. The effect on his music was perhaps surprising; it has a delicate radiance and sense of timelessness, with one foot in this world, and one foot in the next. Listen as Tavener’s music was sung as Princess Diana’s coffin was borne from Westminster Abbey — it was a transcendent moment, beginning in luminous simplicity, soaring ecstatically into a magnificent ray of sunlight as the procession reached the west door. The very simplicity of it allowed millions to weep, pouring their grief and joy into the sound.

Sorrow and joy. It is fitting that I feel both things as I think back on what John Tavener has meant to me. Sometimes I think it would be easier if I could feel just one thing at a time. But sorrow and joy don’t happen one after the other. They seem to happen all at the same time. It’s like being in the midst of an oppressively dark, gloomy day, and suddenly one brilliant shaft of light comes beaming through the clouds. It’s still gloomy; the sunbeam does not dissipate the overcast skies. But it gleams there in the sky, testifying that there is, indeed, sunshine out there, somewhere, hidden behind the dark clouds.

When speaking of joy and sorrow, it is easy to revert to the old metaphor of darkness and light. Black and white. I have been accused, before, of believing in the darkness more than I believe in the light. Of being a pessimist, living with the expectation that the worst will happen. And therefore, somehow, causing it, as if I created the darkness.

I do not really think that is true, any more than I could, somehow, by force of will, have made yesterday’s rain clouds dissipate and turn it into a sunny day. We do not get to have that much control over the world. But that is beside the point.

John TavenerWhich is the truth, darkness or light? If I believe in the dark, does that mean I do not believe in the light? Is it that black and white?

People often speak about things being “black and white,” by which they actually mean something is either black or white. Clearly one thing, or the other. Well, if I have learned anything in this life, it is that almost nothing is clearly black or white. They are not even gray. Almost everything is both black and white at the same time. People, for example, are rarely purely good or purely bad, and also not a neutral-in-the-middle gray; we are all a messy mixture of both good and bad, simultaneously.

Thus it is with life. Almost every moment contains both darkness and light. Distinct, and separate, and coexisting. The via media, the middle road, is not some flat compromise of gray, but a lively tension resulting from the pull of two opposites.

John Tavener, who understood this, portrayed it in music, in his composition Ikon of Light. (Listen to it.) A string trio is the darkness, the soul lost and yearning. This is suddenly interrupted by a choir’s brief, brilliant cry of “Phos” (“Light”). This flash of light is not triumphant; even in its brilliance it is ambivalent. Tavener referred to the expression of “light” as the “joy-sorrow chord.” One chord that contains both joy and sorrow, filled with heartbreaking ecstasy.

That is more how I see it. Every moment contains joy and sorrow, heartbreak and ecstasy, sorrows and songs, darkness and light. Black and white, and every other color besides.

It makes no sense to me to be asked to believe in only one or the other. What seems more likely is that in certain moments, one aspect may be hidden. Yesterday, outside my window, it was a dark, gloomy day. The sun was nowhere to be seen. But even as I sat there in gloom, it was a sunny day. Not right here, perhaps. But if I were to fly high enough, above the clouds, it would have been sunny. Just because I cannot see the sun, right now, does not mean that it is not shining.

The belief that the sun is shining does not make the clouds go away. The presence of the clouds is not something I can control. They are there whether I want them or not. The challenge is to accept that there is sunlight, even though I cannot see it.

The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

It is not easy. Sometimes I need reminding that there is always, in every moment, both black and white, both sorrows and songs, both darkness and light. The music of John Tavener fills my heart with gratitude like a brilliant ray of light momentarily breaking through the clouds, attesting that there is sunshine out there, somewhere, unseen beyond the dark clouds.