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Monday, August 18, 2014

Widening the Circle of "Us"

A few weeks ago I was at a party in New Orleans in what you might call a newly gentrified neighborhood; or to avoid euphemisms, an area of town that used to be all black but now some white folks have moved into. The crowd ranged from Morgan Stanley employees in seersucker to the local homeless man in a wheelchair that gets dragged around by his huge fluffy mutt to a guy with the most elaborate grill I'd seen since the time Lil' Jon hosted a New Year's Eve party that my company ran. There was a crawfish boil on the front lawn, a pig roast in the backyard, Juvenile and "the Wobble" being blasted on the stereo, and a ginormous tupperware full of potent punch sitting on the floor in the kitchen of the host's unlocked home. There were small children and pets, couples and eager singles, faces of every color and age, though the bulk of us were in our late 20's to early 40's. We laughed, drank, ate and drank some more together until the sun went down.

Around sunset I found myself having a loud, light-hearted conversation with two older black men in the front yard. We weren't alone - far from it- but the large group in which we were previously encircled had drifted away to lawn chairs and smoke breaks, leaving the three of us to continue our chat which, in typical of drunken party fashion, had skipped around from one innocuous topic to the next. Then suddenly one of them turned to me, looked me in the eye and said, "I know you're not from 'round here. Where are you from?". "No, I'm not actually...I'm from Maryland but lived in NYC the last 12 years. What gave it away? My Yankee accent?" "No," one of the men said, "the fact that you're standing out here talking to two black men even though your husband and all your white friends went inside."

I felt a hardening inside of me and my legs became heavy. Whoa. At first I protested. Surely my lack of outright racism towards these two men could not be that shocking. These two men with whom I have mutual friends, with whom I had already shared an hour of personal anecdotes, who I knew had wives and children and belly laughs and warm smiles and even a genuine interest in yoga. Could it really be that shocking that I hadn't needed my husband's protection or the shield of a few more white faces to feel comfortable talking to them? They weren't a them...not like strangers walking down a dark alley...they were an us! Weren't they?

But deep down inside of me, I knew that it was actually that shocking. Especially so in the deep south where I was gradually learning that the line between "us" and "them" was far deeper than I had experienced previously in my life. I knew it when a good friend and fellow Columbia graduate who happened to be African-American decided to go back to NYC after grad school at Tulane so he and his white fiancee wouldn't have to deal with the stares and whispers. I knew it when local public school teachers told me about their student populations and when local parents admonished me, "you CANNOT send your kids to public school down here." And I felt it palpably when speaking with these two men.

And yet this is not a problem specific to New Orleans, the deep south, or even the United States. The goings on in Ferguson, in Gaza, and in every city around the world are symptoms of the same disease: Us versus Them. When someone - or worse - an entire population of someones becomes a "them" for you, they immediately lose their humanity. We can gossip about and bully the kids at the other lunch table at school because they're not in our clique. We can kill civilians in other countries because they are the enemy. And white cops can shoot unarmed black men in broad daylight. Why? Because they're not one of Us.

I know this is oversimplifying a broad, complex, deep-seated, historical issue but in order to begin addressing this problem at its origin- our hearts- the solution is actually quite clear. Widen your circle of Us. Don't fool yourself that it's ok to separate and persecute some groups - the immigrants, the Republicans, people who like country music- no matter how minuscule or petty it may seem. You may claim that you're not a racist but if your circle of Us doesn't include all beings everywhere without exception, then you've still got work to do. Maybe you judge the poor. The obese. People who grew up in trailer parks. We all have this judgement inside of us - I know I do. Be honest with yourself and from that place of brutal honesty, begin your work.

There is a form of meditation known as Metta, or Loving Kindness meditation that is needed so intensely and on the largest possible scale in our world today. The premise is simple: you start by cultivating feelings of love and compassion for yourself, then someone you love, then someone you feel neutral about, then to someone you find difficult or have a beef with, then all of these 4 people equally, and then to the entire population of the world without exception. Recently I've been attempting to apply this meditative technique in a more immediate sense: that kid I just saw on the street who made me cross to the other side? May he be safe. May he be happy. May he be healthy. May he leave with ease. The person whose Facebook status made me really pissed off or jealous or judgey? May she be safe. May she be healthy. May she be happy. May she live with ease. The governments that are mongering war and even the cops who are senselessly shooting unarmed youths in the street? Even them. May they be safe, healthy, happy and free and may the powerful, connection-creating, union-promoting power of Us triumph over the evil, divisiveness of Us versus Them. I repeat these things in my head until the thoughts of separatism and hatred and Them-ness start to dissipate. I pray that I can cleanse my mind, my heart and my soul of these feelings of otherness towards my fellow human beings, gradually, and with repeated effort.

As children, we are taught that we are different- that we are special. We're this race, that nationality. We live in this neighborhood and have that much money. We are taught this outwardly and silently by our parents, our school systems, and by society at large. Us versus Them is not something any of us can avoid. Even though I was raised in an open-minded family in the North and attended only public school, I was not immune to it. The only way to combat this ingrained mentality is through constant reinforcement of loving kindness. Breaking down the dividing walls around our hearts and inviting in those we love, those we feel neutral about, those we hate, judge, or fear, and then all beings everywhere in- without exception. By unlearning and relearning how we classify others. By attempting, no, by DARING not to classify other individuals at all.

If the world is weighing heavy on your heart as of late, don't despair. Don't become complacent or lose your faith in humanity. Sometimes bad things have to happen to wake us up out of our fogs of blissful ignorance. Sometimes these things are small, like a candid comment at a crawfish boil and sometimes they are huge, seismic, societal shifts. They involve violence, and rioting, and the loss of innocent lives.  These events are only horrific and senseless if they don't encourage us to change. Start with yourself, which is truly, the only place you can start.