For a brief moment, last week I flattered myself in being superior to my colleagues and friends for at least one thing: I considered that I never stood up another person for a breakfast or lunch meeting—minutes late maybe, but never not there. Been the stoodup-ee, I say, but never the stood-upper! Well, I’ve had my comeuppance: I have become the stoodup-er—I received a call from a colleague wondering if I had forgotten to meet her for lunch. Yes, I had!
This may seem a silly anecdote but I think it points out how we can quickly note a less than admirable behavior in others, quick to judge how we would never do that. But we are all capable of less than admirable behavior given the right (or wrong) circumstances. In fact, our comparison judging itself is a negative behavior.
This message was brought home to me very poignantly in a recent viewing of the movie CRASH, at an event sponsored by the Church of the Open Door in Kennett Square. The movie is said to be a portrayal of insidious racism, and it is. But its message goes beyond our superficially “different” appearances and languages to how we are reactive out of fear.
What I saw in the complicated web of relationships (or lack thereof) in CRASH was how past trauma—perceived or real—creates the murky vision of stereotype and prejudice. Not one of us is immune to this shadowy filtering of our experience. Our misperceptions misguide us. To mix metaphors, we come to each interaction, impaled on the tips of our own icebergs of family and societal history! We develop erroneous belief systems about others based on what we perceive as old injuries to us or our families or our countries. We construct a mythology of fear—that group of people stole my father’s job; that culture is …. That nation is …. Fill in the blanks. We don’t see individuals to relate and connect to, we see in the other the possibility of our own annihilation, a loss of our survival. When we think our survival is at stake, we lash out in fear.
In the discussion after the movie, we were asked with what characters did we identify. My husband’s astute response was “to all of them.” There were no evil people here: there were complicated humans who in one circumstance could act with evil intent, yet in another circumstance, override their rage and fear and transform to the heroic. The philosopher Immanuel Kant said, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” So it may be that the road to heaven has many ill-intentioned detours.
If there were some kind of formula we could live by that would help us create a world where there is less hell and more heaven, I would say that it would be to become fully aware of our shadowy fear and to recognize the emotional reactivity that lurks within all of us.
When you see this movie, don’t think it’s about other people. It’s about us all.
I am reminded of a story about Mother Teresa who, when asked why she lived a life of compassion, replied “Because of the Hitler in me.”