On the outside looking in

“But, what is it that AMERICANS are so ANGRY about?” asked a young man from a large country with a complicated democracy on another continent.

One of three I know quite well.

He was clueless about how so many Americans were prepared to vote for a candidate so filled with hatred. What could they possibly be unsatisfied about in the world’s richest and most powerful country, a place where everything works?

Or so he thinks.

I sucked my teeth as I tried to find where to begin to offer an explanation – if I even had one – while sitting in a very humble restaurant with delicious food and inept service. We had always gone to the same place, so it was our natural choice to celebrate his departure to the US, the realization of a dream for which he had made great sacrifices.

The street outside was dirty, noisy and disorderly. People spoke loudly, in a volume and tone that Americans might mistake for hostility in the absence of smiles, but there was actually a shy exchange of laughter among strangers who looked and talked to each other. Everywhere you glanced, the faces were those of contentment or unmasked emotions. No one was alone. Everyone looked at everyone, everywhere – their eyes meeting as if conspiring in a game together.

It was a scene that could be repeated in more than one country I know, but not the US.

I turned my head around to look at more people as I called the waiter and others took advantage of my movement to have our eyes meet.

It was then that I realized I might have something to offer as an explanation.

“I remember looking at everyone on the subway and no one ever looking back. I remember clearly thinking that something was wrong; it was impossible that people couldn’t see me. I saw all of them.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You’ll see when you arrive there. They pretend not to see each other. It is hard for me to explain and for you to imagine, but they don’t look at each other; they avoid touching one another; they keep a distance to maintain individual privacy. You will feel it immediately: no one will look at you, but everyone will see you and move out of your way. It is the one thing I find nerve-racking when I go back.”

“Hmmm,” sighed the young man, whose list of nerve-racking was composed of the opposite: the way his fellow countrymen always bumped into him or cut him off without any regard. Sitting on the other side of the table, he was trying to imagine the world on the other side of the planet, a place of opportunities he feels he doesn’t have in his homeland and desires badly. A place where people respect the rights of others. A place where an individual actually has rights.  A place, he imagines, where everything is safe, clean, beautiful and organized.

Or so he thinks.

It was everything he wanted. But it is also a place where the candidate in question would like to seal the borders to stop people like him from entering.

I had only succeeded in confusing him, so he insisted, “I don’t understand what this has to do with this crazy election there?”

“I don’t think the elections here in your country are any saner.”

“True,” he replied, confirming an inalienable fact, since his country’s politics, like many others, have also been rendered into a circus, replete with flying factoids used to insult and hurt others by targeting the inevitable hypocrisy that can be found in every individual. Uncomfortable and impatient with one’s own inconsistency – much less for that of others – emotion overrides analysis, and the peanuts and tomatoes are hurled, stifling any discussion.

“Listen, I’ve now lived more than twenty years outside the country – which I’m beginning to realize is enough not to recognize much from the outside looking in – but apparently even many Americans who have lived all their lives in the country no longer recognize the country they grew up in.”

Then, I bit my lip, muttering the most important detail, “…or thought they grew up in.”

I continued by explaining my take on the menu. There were two candidates: one had more strings attached than I would like to see, but she is someone I trust to learn from her mistakes, just as I hope I have learned from mine; then there was a candidate who has apparently never ever made any mistakes – despite evidence to the contrary – and, therefore, he is someone who is without any need of learning anything. This immaturity is unacceptable even from someone without power…

“.. .and he wants to be President.” After finishing my sentence for me, he continued, “Ok, but why are there enough Americans angry enough to vote for such ignorance?”

I once met a man on a plane, an immigrant to the US, who had lived there many more years than I ever have. He raised a family there. He is probably the man who you want to be some day. He had dealt with all the prejudice against him over the years: the rejections; his children bullied; the police that refused to help him when his business was robbed. He told me something I will never forget. He said, ‘America is a funny place: the rich aren’t happy; the poor aren’t happy: nobody is happy. They are so aggressive: it’s like there is no love in their hearts’. Naturally he had grossly generalized, but it struck me. Somehow I knew what he was talking about – which might say even more about a place like your country than mine.”

“Which is also a gross generalization!” he retorted.

“I know you cannot see it now, but don’t be surprised if one day you look back and find much more to be proud of your country than you do now.  Although I really fear that is changing quickly.”

“Why?”

“According to the older gentleman on the plane, the American Dream was not only sold to the people of the US, but the entire world. People are frustrated sacrificing today for the promise of more tomorrow. Lives are spent consuming things – or not consuming things. Those unsuccessful have frustrated desires and are envious of others; those successful are also frustrated, for no matter how much they consume they aren’t satisfied; desire never goes away. George Bernard Shaw said ‘The man with a toothache thinks everyone happy whose teeth are sound. The poverty-stricken man makes the same mistake about the rich man‘. People always need more to work more to make more to buy more and more. They also become envious, suspecting others might have ‘made it’. There are those who resort to arrogance and insolence to convince themselves and others of their plenitude, that they’ve won the game.”

“Trump!”

“That is the problem with him: he is a hoax even unto himself. He has consumed women, money, constructed buildings and buildings, hurt people – nothing has taken away his pain and he would destroy this world before someone discovers his secret – that which is so plainly obvious. Anyone enjoying the fruit of their own discipline, no matter how great or small, is a threat to him. That is the power of greed. He has never been disciplined enough to have enjoyed anything in his life and he belittles others, such derision and cruelty makes him feel better. Such are bullies: they are really hurting, really angry. He thinks if he becomes President of the United States, King of the World, that he will finally convince, be successful, be free from himself – which reminds me…”

I paused before comically raising my voice with authority and pointing at him between the eyes, “Now you listen to me young man…” My friend smiled, almost spitting his water before receiving my sermon. I prepared the words of wisdom as they had been delivered to me, and that I have been fortunate enough to deliver to a few others in the nick of time: “You may travel to the other side of the world, you may try to run to the corners of this universe, but you will never escape from yourself. You will take you wherever you go, together with all your personal demons. There is no place to run and hide and nothing you can consume to make you happy, to make you complete. You are already complete: it is said that it is the very mission of life to realize that.”

He fell silent and looked away from me and at the people around us in the neighboring tables. Now it was him who sucked his teeth, looking away from me. Thinking.

“Ok, but he is not the only unhappy man in America,” he returned.

True, I thought. I know of only a few of his supporters, but I’ve tried to research their grievances. No matter how much I give them the benefit of doubt, after sorting through all the tomatoes and peanuts – no matter how well-aimed – there is still the unsurpassable fact that the economic and geopolitical fiasco was delivered to the current administration by the opposition, who then had eight years to come up with a proposal, a plan – who didn’t – and who have opted to spitefully spend the past eight years undermining and sabotaging any progress. Now they are also in the hands of a candidate who has led a significant angry constituency to perform outlandish mental and moral gymnastics around his fabrications and their own prejudice in order to give license to his cruelty.

“…Fabrications?” my friend asked.

“It means lies – but more than lies,” I pondered. “They are inventions stated as truth, but the speaker has no idea if they are true or not, and he probably doesn’t care because he is using his own discretion to fill in the blank about knowledge he doesn’t have. I think everyone does this to a certain healthy degree to facilitate things to get through the day, but if a person doesn’t cultivate the discipline of seeing one’s own mind at work, stepping back from it and observing it as an object that nimbly jumps to conclusions, one can remain completely oblivious of one’s own ignorance. They won’t recognize the difference among the different kinds of thought, such as emotion and logic – opposite and equal means of knowledge – but let’s just say that while one is very good at creating the empathy and intuition needed to maintain friends and family, it is not conducive to making public decisions of the best way to organize society for the benefit of all. Apparently we humans have difficulty with empathy for groups – abstracts that remain out of sight and out of mind – but not for the individuals, even strangers, immediately around us.

Those whose eyes we look into, I thought.

“Ok, but then why have so many organized themselves behind such anger?” he insisted.

I grimaced into my best Yoda face and voice, “Fear leads to anger; anger leads to suffering…or something like that”

“Yoda!” he snorted, almost spitting his coffee. A neighboring table, a well-behaved and quiet family had just prayed before eating. They were amused by our antics and English-speaking.

“But afraid of what, Ricky?”

“People that are different. Otherness.”

“Racism?”

“Yes. Well, no. It’s that I have my doubts about racism,” I looked at the well-behaved family of a religion I do not like, and then looked back at my great friend’s face. Should I have told him that there are some Americans that will take one look at that face and not like him? I was trying to remember what I might have concluded about his dark complexion and accent in English. I wondered if I really would have treated him as an equal back in Chicago. Of course I would have treated him as respectfully as any other, but I wonder if I would have hired him for a job. Would I have passed him over for someone whose culture I could have related to more at the time? Have I ever discriminated? Do my friends who practice that religion – the same as the well-behaved family that was sitting across from us – know my disregard for their religion? Maybe they don’t think much of mine as well.

I continued, “Yes, I think it is obviously racism – but I’m beginning to realize that sexism is a bigger problem than I had ever imagined. Regardless, I think there is a difference between these -isms and prejudice. I don’t think that in this day and age they are many delusional enough to believe the lie that they would have to tell themselves to be part of a superior race, relegating others as inferior sub-humans who can be bartered like animals. Prejudice, on the other hand, is something I think everyone does. It is ‘filling in the blank’, quickly sorting the complexity of humanity – despite lack of sufficient information – into convenient profiles with labels for easy access…or rejection.”

“I’m not prejudiced!” exclaimed my friend, lightly affronted.

I smiled. Indeed, a nicer, more open young man would be hard to find, but I couldn’t resist, “Are you sure?”

He paused, his eyeballs whirling, looking for past discrepancies.  Seeing him with self-doubt filled me with great hope, because a person who practices watching their own mind at work will always be blessed with the maturity to deal with adversity. Such people know that we are not and never will be the sole authors of own successes and failures, because it is a convergence of factors and people come together to deliver the results of our actions and they are not in our control. Such people are conscientious enough to always check these factors, their own mistakes, and what they have been the beneficiaries of —  first — before hurling the tomatoes and peanuts – or memes – at others. Such people will measure their words because they see their own discrepancies and have the opportunity to extend compassion to others struggling with theirs too. The belligerent candidate in question does not possess this ability. It is a discipline, something that must be cultivated over time. While this lack of faculty does not necessarily make a bad or unintelligent person, it does constitute an immature person, an infantile person, someone who is quick to find the inconsistency in others and to blame them for their discomfort; they will never admit to their own error. Devoid of self-reflection, this kind of undisciplined person will listen only to answer and not to learn. Never cultivating compassion nor patience, such a person is inapt to deal with the pluralism of society. Their ego remains at the top of the mountain, unable to consider the perspective of others, as in the figure below.

ego eco

My friend continued to roll his eyeballs looking for things in the past in a sincere effort to find some mistakes. Looking at him from across the table, I saw a person that is an example of someone who monitors his conclusions, wary not to discriminate when filling in the blanks about people and places he does not know. He is not the type who wishes to hurt or offend. A guy who naturally walks unarmed and with no use for meanness. But unfortunately, there are those who do not make this effort – and the candidate in question is an extreme case, calling my father and family “rapists and killers”, among many, many other documented instances of ignorance that he then said he didn’t say.

“No, I can’t say I am prejudiced,” he responded after sincere contemplation.

I could have taken a shot at him, quickly slapping him with a meme of one of the countless occasions I witnessed him and others treat those “below” their social class, putting up a protective, prickly barrier between them and, say, the waiter, who brought the bill to our table, throwing it down without a word and leaving in a fashion that Americans would find unacceptable, but is locally considered just casual, informal, like the exchange between friends who do not need words or permission to invade personal space. I watched the waiter for a moment. He was a graying gentleman whose voice smiled although his face did not, and I tried to imagine how my friend would manage the first time he encounters the opposite in those plastered, effervescent smiles of diligent American service.

He’ll leap in fright, I thought.

Or I could have reminded my friend of the time he might have offended me. Prejudice is not spoken; it is what goes unsaid, whereas discrimination is an action – manifest – and something that I witnessed in his irksome crack years ago: “Ricky is not American! He’s cool! He speaks different languages! He knows about the world!”

What had been meant as flattery arrived as insult for many reasons, not the least of which was the blaring conjuration in what was not said: a ‘real’ American was a bigoted gun-slinger who was proud of his ignorance and proud of despising otherness. Therefore, somehow, according to his files – his prejudice – I couldn’t be one of them.

Ironically, however, there seems to be a bigot, proud of his ignorance and his despise of otherness who is running for President of the US. This is a fact that shows just how dangerously successful was that incision between ‘real’ Americans and Others, because when even people in other countries start emulating that same bigotry, we have a big problem in this world that will last long after this election.

But being insulted is a choice, and I had chosen not to be on the occasion, knowing my friend had had no bad intention and knowing that just my presence would slowly undo his prejudice. The most important ingredient for knowledge to flourish is time. We are very impatient, thinking that slapping someone with information will reveal the truth. It should be so easy. I’ve found the best way to change another’s perspective is to be silent, stick close to them, and let them stick around long enough to be led by example. No one has ever been educated by insult.

I thought more about the waiter, watching my mind fill in the blank about a man I would never know. He looked tired and would probably finish his shift and retire to a slum somewhere in the city all around us.

Places – just like people – we see but never look at.

Life is very short and there is not much time, especially in the big city where we often have to make quick decisions about others, based on either too little or too much information, so that there is often not enough time for contemplation, not to mention granting the benefit of doubt to others. So we slap these labels on each other and keep moving out of convenience.

I wonder what the waiter thought of me – if he even saw me.

“I’m prejudiced,” I flatly admitted.

My friend smirked.

“Don’t look at them now, but that family over there…you know what their religion is and what I think of it. But just observing them, they seem like wonderful, peaceful people.” I turned to meet their eyes again, nodding my head to acknowledge them. They nodded back, smiling, then I continued, “They don’t fit the blank I’ve filled for them. These are moments that disarm my prejudice.

Getting to know individuals that are not of my tribe and sharing experience, eavesdropping into their world – READING OTHER STORIES from people and places I would never know – is the only way I’ve found to get enough context in order not to contract prejudice. I let it drop, enabling the contraction of other, much more important actions. Because, as I have tried to teach yoga students in the past, in the words of Moshe Feldenkrais, “Learning to inhibit unwanted contractions of muscles that function without, or in spite of, our will, is the main task in coordinated action.” The renowned scientist and martial artist beautifully summed up not only the importance of discerning between the working and lengthening muscles in each movement of the body, but how the same discernment applies to the mind.

Literature is so important. It allows us to infiltrate other worlds and look into other eyes with other eyes. Especially in our world today, when we live in tribes right next to each other yet so far away in the architecture of cities made for individualism and to separate our tribes. All kinds of devices and services created to keep individuals with the illusion that they don’t depend on anyone for anything, reducing our contact with each other, and creating space for “enemies”.

Leaving the restaurant we automatically and unconsciously checked for the usual hazards as we strolled, eyeing for a half second the potential dangers that are the result of a nation ridden with impunity and corruption that result in potential dangers, unfathomable to most Americans – despite all the violence and shoddy infrastructure in the US. I will not describe them to you. I can just say that it takes me about a week to unwind and stop looking for them, being able to trust the order around me whenever I go back to Chicago.

…a Chicago, that is, where folks live. Not people. Because there is a Chicago I do not know – a place of such great suffering recently that the candidates keep talking about it – maybe the US-equivalent of the place where someone like our waiter might live.

“So who do you think will win the election, Ricky?”

It is the other question everyone asks me these days. “I don’t know. Everything indicates she will, and I hope she does, but there might be more fear and anger in closet than realized. Dunno. Regardless of the outcome, great damage has already been done, posing an even greater challenge for tomorrow.”

Stopping on the noisy corner of street for the last high-five and hug before we parted, “You’ll be fine in the US. You’ll see. Like all countries, it is difficult at times. There are advantages and disadvantages. It is your dream; go for it. All the best!”

Then I halted him: “Just promise me one thing before you go,” He looked at me quizzically before I continued, “it might be more prudent to hide it from time to time, but never lose your ability to look into a stranger’s eyes and smile. I think it is one of the most best gifts you can take them from your country.”

Om Tat Sat

https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story

https://www.ted.com/talks/marwa_al_sabouni_how_syria_s_architecture_laid_the_foundation_for_brutal_war

http://learnmore.economist.com/story/57f615bc536668fd79e86178

http://www.rawstory.com/2016/08/a-neuroscientist-explains-what-may-be-wrong-with-trump-supporters-brains/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/on-parenting/how-to-raise-kinder-less-entitled-kids-according-to-science/2016/10/03/1a74fa3a-7525-11e6-b786-19d0cb1ed06c_story.html

 

 

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A native of Chicago, Ricky Toledano has lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for over twenty years as a writer, translator and teacher. [a]multipicity is multi-lingual collection of reflections through the humanities.

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