The Language of Identity: Part 3 – It's Not All About You
You’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s all about you. You go about your business, day in, day out, and you do the things that you think are right for you. You eat breakfast, go to work, assert your identity as you move about the world. You fit within the paradigm of your expectations.
But it’s never just about you. That’s how the world works. Although we can’t ever be truly certain of anything other than our own thoughts, it is hard to deny that we are a part of something bigger. We are part of a group whether we like it or not. A member of our family. A member of our office team. Of our local community. Of the general public. Of the human race.
Despite this, there are systems in place that are intended to keep us apart and separate us from others. Within our corporate hierarchy we are more senior to those below us, and less senior to those above us. We brush shoulders with people who are wealthier than us. Cross paths with people in uniforms. Our function, our dress, our language, the colour of our skin — all of these things, we’re taught, separate us and keep us apart from others.
There are some who would use this “otherness” to manipulate us and our thinking. Newspapers warn us of the threat that “others” pose. Other groups, dissimilar to our own — whatever that may be — are a threat. People from other countries. People from other cultural groups. Those subordinate to us. Those in different age groups. Those who would do us harm.
We are encouraged to fear these others groups, those people who are different to us, because it keeps us where we are. It maintains the structures that keep us pigeon-holed. We don’t mix with them because they aren’t like us, they are a threat to everything we hold dear, everything we’ve worked towards. The very idea of “others” clashes with the idea of the group we are supposed to be a part of.
But, as I mentioned in the last part of this essay, there is much to be gained from recognising the one-ness of us all. The texture that embracing the “different” can bring to our lives. The richness of experience that others have to offer that we could never hope to gain on our own. The reality that boundaries, the things that separate us from these others, are abstract concepts. They are perceptual things that may or may not exist, but are used daily to keep us penned in, and to keep power and comfort and security where it is now. To maintain the status quo.
Those people, who we are taught to fear, to look down upon, or to look up to, are really no different from us at all. Those people fleeing dangerous regimes in their own countries by boarding barely buoyant boats in The Mediterranean are doing just what we would do if faced with the same circumstances — if we were brave enough. Those people who spend their times in the shiny corner offices of the top floor are just like us, had we chosen different subjects at school, different career paths, been born into a different situation or adopted different moral outlooks earlier in life.
In London, on The Strand, sits Coutts and Co. A historic institution that looks after the finances of the extremely wealthy. The Queen does her banking here. But step outside the sliding glass doors onto the street and pause for a moment before you run for the tube. You’ll notice that those fortunate enough to find themselves coming and going from the well-polished hallways of this financial otherworld exist in parallel to another group of people. The doorways, underpasses and street corners around Coutts are home to the homeless, to the hungry and the penniless. Just feet away from the front door of this place of money exist those with none. They queue for food from the mobile soup kitchen, provided by another group of people, as the besuited bankers queue with people like you and me for their lattes just around the corner.
Strip away the finery, take away the bank balances with all the zeros, take away the sleeping bags, the growling stomachs, the sores from sleeping on the pavement, and you’d find it difficult to separate these two groups. Underneath it all we are the same great apes, all working to survive in a world that is built on difference, on the idea of otherness. All that separates the homeless man in the doorway from the moneyed man in the corner office are a series of circumstances, choices, situations, opportunities and decisions. Take away the symbols that fit our predetermined paradigms and entrenched belief systems and the doctor who operates on our loved one is the same as the doctor who finds himself clinging for life with fifty others in a dinghy in the middle of the ocean. Strip away our biases and that group of scary looking lads hanging the bus stop are just the same as the frightened old people who cross the road to avoid them, but who themselves were scary looking young people once.
Stop for a moment, focus your attention on someone who is different to yourself. And recognise that there (to paraphrase John Bradbury), but for the grace of god, go I.
When you turn your gaze upon yourself and see past those things that are piled upon us from birth, past the perceptual indicators of race, gender, upbringing, wealth and opportunity, what are you left with? A human animal, conscious, sentient, thinking and feeling. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” That is you. That is me. That is everyone else. We are the same.
When we ignore those things that society, media and culture tell us to fear or be beholden to — that otherness — we see instead oneness. We see others who are feeling just as we feel. We see others trying to get by just as we are. Others who are confused, hurting, struggling, feeling. Others who are winning, experiencing, savouring, loving. Others who wish to be understood, acknowledged and celebrated, just as we do.
When we feel a certain way towards another group, to someone who is different, we should recognise this feeling within us. Because while it may be directed outwards at someone other than ourselves, in reality it speaks more about us than it does about them.
When we feel frightened, disgusted, wary or threatened, what we are feeling are actually our own biases, our own preconditioned patterns of thinking. When we feel angry at what we read in the newspaper, these biases are being manipulated, and played with. When give a wide berth to someone who is asking for help, or in need, or wanting, our path is a reflection of our own internal processes. Our anger speaks of our intolerance. Our irritation speaks of our impatience. Our bitterness speaks of our jealousy. Our hatred speaks of our fear. We when react in a negative way to others, even if it is only on the inside, we are building boundaries that prevent us from connecting, putting fences up around ourselves and the richness that a life lived in recognition of ‘oneness’ has to offer. Rather than keep “others” out, we are imprisoning ourselves, and this prison is of our own making.
When we react negatively, whether that’s in the office, on the street, in the car — wherever — we are doing ourselves a disservice by choosing not to recognise the thing within others that we wish others would recognise within us. We choose the lazy option and see a simpler story that has, perhaps, been created for us by society or by media. It is more difficult, but more rewarding for everyone on the planet, to instead choose to recognise ourselves within them. But rather than choosing empathy and understanding, we choose attach ourselves to a much easier story, a much easier perspective that has been crafted for us already. And we do both them and ourselves a disservice.
You are special. You know that, and it is proven each moment when you look through your own eyes, hear with your own ears, experience the world from within yourself. We cannot experience the world in any other way, and that sets us apart from every other living being in the world. But this specialness is being lived by everyone else too. No matter how they behave, how they dress, what they do for a living, what car they drive or what language they speak, they too are special, just like us. Unique, at the centre of their own world. And in this respect they are just like us. And in this respect, they deserve our full respect.
The world ‘namaste’ is thrown around by the middle classes like confetti, yet its meaning is rarely practiced. The divine within me bows down before the divine within you. My desire to be heard and understood acknowledges your equal desire to be heard and understood. For all our differences we are the same. The woman in the doorway asking for spare change, the train driver who got us to work this morning, the man in the gilded tower. We are all the same. Individuals seeking to be treated with respect and humanity. Let’s celebrate each other. Let’s recognise each other.
Empathy is a quality that allows us to imagine ourselves into the shoes of others. It isn’t about pity, or charity or fear. It is about recognising others as we would wish to be recognised. The angry person, the rude person, the person in a hurry behind us, they have motivations, and needs and feelings just as we do. Empathy allows and empowers us to give a little accommodation for this, just as we wish for a little accommodation for ourselves. Would it hurt to give that person a little space? Would it hurt to let that other person go first? Would it hurt to give alms to someone in need? Would it hurt to celebrate the successes of someone in their gilded tower as if they were our own? Would it hurt to share the pride of other people’s achievements rather than seeing them as an affront to our own bitter failures?
It wouldn’t hurt at all. It would make our worlds bigger. It would fill our hearts with energy and joy. It would connect us to everyone on the planet, and we could, perhaps, learn to love ourselves just a little bit more in the process.
When we attempt to see through the eyes of others, by imagining what we would see through our own eyes in their situation, our boundaries soften. And when that happens our minds open to new possibilities, a new, broader perspective on the universe, and a richer life experience. We see the world from new angles. We become wealthier, more welcoming, wiser, gentler, part of something bigger than ourselves. We become part of a continuum of oneness. Both the same. It’s no longer me versus the world, it’s me and the world, moving forward together.
The divine within me bows down before the divine within you.