“Peace is not unity in similarity but unity in diversity, in the comparison and conciliation of differences.”~Mikhail Gorbachev.
One of the problems with growing up as a preacher’s child (parson pickney, in Jamaican terms) is the unrealistic expectation that somehow you will behave better than the average child. My mother discovered that I had ‘unfriended’ a former friend, she was no longer one of my inner circle (this was when I was about 10 years old). She informed me that I was to ‘re-friend’ her – I had to make up with her and normalize relations. I remember feeling that this was a heavy burden to bear. My other friends could do as they pleased – talk to whomever they chose to – but I was somehow held to a higher standard of extremely unreasonable behavior. But children can be cruel. I don’t even remember why I had decided to unfriend her.
I remember having to read the book ‘Lord of the flies’ for school. It is not a book that I have ever wanted to read again. When it came out as a movie I could not watch it. For those who may not have read it, (forgive my poor memory if I don’t get it right) it is the story of a group of schoolboys shipwrecked on an island. They have to survive, but in doing so, the worst of their nature is revealed. They create a hierarchy of roles, with one poor soul becoming the object of cruel derision. The mob mentality kicks in, and all semblance of decent human behavior is lost in their new world order. It does not end well.
There was a famous experiment (the Stanford prison experiment) that is another example of the worst of human behavior. Volunteers in this experiment were randomly divided into prisoners and jailers, and a mock prison was set up to see the psychological effects of each role. The experiment had to be ended early, as the jailers began to exhibit behavior far more abusive than they had been instructed. Even though all participants knew it was an experiment, it became very real to them, and it brought out the worst in them.
We know we are capable of horrendous behavior. Our newsfeed is full of evidence of man’s inhumanity to man. War is just one aspect. The reality for many is that they grow up in a part of the world where lack of access to clean water, healthcare, education, decent living conditions, means a far different life expectancy, a lack of hope for the future. Geography as destiny.
Yet here we are, living in a nation with access to all that man’s creativity and innovation can inspire, bogged down in the ugliest of election seasons. Regardless of the outcome (and unfortunately at this point, it appears as if it could go either way), we will have a job to bring this country back together.
Last weekend I had the privilege of listening to two guests on the Krista Tippett show (On being, on NPR). One was the leader of an inter-faith community, the other a former poet laureate. They both graciously and compassionately reminded me that it is possible to come together in a diverse society. But we have to be prepared to find common ground with those who are different from us in a bad way. Not just those who we are fascinated by, who are different in a ‘good’ way. It is easy to be absorbed in the cultural practices of those we admire. We learn about Japanese culture, about the ceremonies and traditions of Native Americans. We admire the clothing, the food, the creativity of people in Africa. When it is something or someone we admire, we are happy to show our diversity, our open-mindedness, our tolerance.
But what happens when those who are different from us are less attractive, less intriguing? What happens if we secretly look down on them, think they are less than us, think they are not worthy of our interest? How can we bring decency and civility back to our society, when we have seen the ugly side exposed? How do we go back to business as usual?
The former poet laureate Natasha Tretheway spoke of the role of the poet. She is the product of an interracial marriage, her parents had to move to another state to get married, as it was still illegal (Mississippi, 1965). But in speaking of poetry, she said that it helps to introduce people to those who are different from them. We can read the voice of another, and learn something about ourselves, in a poem. One of the guests used the phrase ‘evoking better angels’ which sparked my thoughts for today. What can we do toevoke our better angels, to find ways to behave better? How can we, as Michelle Obama reminded us, go high, when they go low?
At a time when it is far easier to listen to the negative, to instinctively react in a down and dirty way, how will we be able to rise above? What responsibility to we have, each of us, not the so-called leaders, to demonstrate humanity, common decency, in order to uncover a way forward in peaceful coexistence?
I was touched, encouraged, and made hopeful as I listened to the interview last Sunday. It was apparently Charles Dickens who first wrote of our better angels, those that we mortals block from our view with the ‘shadows or our desires’. Abraham Lincoln incorporated it in his first inaugural speech, calling for the ‘better angels of our nature’.
On this fascinating Friday morning, when friends on Facebook have been posting beautiful pictures of nature, in an effort to remind us of all that we have to keep us grounded and appreciative of the world around us, I hope you will find your better angels. I hope we will all emerge on the other side of the election madness with a clear vision of a world where differences of opinion can co-exist; where we can respectfully disagree but work together for a common good. And I call on my poet friends to answer the challenge!
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!