Monday, September 28, 2015

No, I'm sorry, your intolerance isn't "different"

It has been a weird few weeks for me. Coverage of the ongoing Syrian crisis, and the resulting refugees, has plunged me into the unfamiliar waters of having racism and intolerance flooding my safe places. 

Mild, and sometimes not so mild, racist and intolerant propaganda has spread quickly through social media, shared by people I’d least expect it from. 

People I know to be good and kind.

People who would give someone in need the shirt off their back. 

People I know would normally take the time to fact check, to question things. 

More than once, I’ve found myself in strange conversations where sympathy for a child refugee is expressed in the same breath as fear of an adult. 

Conversations in which I think we are sharing our mutual empathy and sympathy, but suddenly, we’re not, and I’m not sure where in the chat the shift happened. 

This isn’t the type of racism I am familiar with. It’s not loud and mean and in your face. It’s a mild undercurrent, wrought with false justifications, by good people. 

Good people who have let fear take over their common sense. 

I suspect this form of racism might be the most dangerous kind.
“But we were all immigrants once. We’ve all faced intolerance”, I say.

 “But this is different”, they say.

That’s the kind of thing I keep hearing.

“This is different.”

“We could be in danger.” “We could let someone into our country that could hurt us.” “Why can’t they be more like us?”   

 “This is different”, they say. 


Fearing someone who is not just like you, is different

 Let's recap.

Europeans came to North America and were, for the most part, welcomed, protected and cared for by the First Nations people who had always lived here. 

We repaid them by converting them to our religion, dressing them in our clothes and sharing our diseases.

We did not assimilate to their culture. 

In fact, those First People who didn’t conform to our ways, were slaughtered or kept as slaves. Later, they were stuck them in residential schools or moved to remote areas, onto land we didn't need, where they couldn’t harass us with their different ways. 

African Americans were different, so they became slaves. When slavery was abolished, sharecropping encompassed anyone who was poor, or “lower class”.

Hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans and Canadians were rounded up and put in internment camps during World War II.

There was too much risk that they could be a spy.  

Six million Jews, along with the disabled, “gypsies”, some Russians and Polish, and various other “supporters”, were persecuted and murdered.

Because the Germans saw their differences as a threat. 

We have lived in fear of communists and we have burned “witches” at the stake. 

War after war after war has been fought over religion.

Women are treated as less than men. 

We have persecuted people from the LGBTQ communities.

At one time or another, people have disliked and distrusted the Irish, the Polish, the Scottish, the British, the Germans, the Mexicans, the Italians, the French, the Greek, the Lebanese, the Hungarian, the Chinese etc. etc. etc. 

If you don’t see yourself, or your parents and grandparents, in the list of persecuted people above, you’re not looking hard enough. Much of it was happening in the last eighty years. Some continues today.

I have no doubt I am leaving pieces out here, but my goal isn’t to give you a comprehensive history lesson on intolerance, it’s to make you see the pattern of intolerance that we exist in. 

There is not one moment in history when we were not persecuting someone who we saw as different.

There is not one moment in history, when we persecuted a person/group of people that we can look back on today, and say “Yes! We were so right to behave that way. Yay us.”

Clearly, we don’t learn from our mistakes. 

You can say “but that was a different time” as many times as you like in order to make yourself feel better.

The first Europeans were just so sure they were doing the right thing by converting and slaughtering the people that they encountered. 

We were just so sure African Americans were less than human and had to be managed.

We were just so sure we were protecting ourselves by sticking Japanese neighbors and friends in internment camps. 

The German’s were just so sure they were doing the right thing by murdering millions of Jews. 

We were just so sure that everyone was a communist. 

We were so sure one group or another posed a threat.

So let me ask you, how sure are you when you say that your intolerance is different? 

Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky has recently come under fire for refusing to issue gay marriage licenses. Because she is just so sure that she is doing God’s work. 

I don’t know about you, but I don’t know of any God that promotes hate and intolerance. People do that. 

Ironically, many of the same people sharing memes attacking Davis for her intolerance are the same people sharing xenophobic and racist memes or stories about Syrian refugees and/or Muslims. 

So please, when you share this incorrect, misspelled, racist garbage, do not tell yourself that you are different from Davis. 

When you say that you don’t mind immigrants as long as they mold to “our” ways, do not tell yourself that you are different from any other group in history that persecuted another. Groups that, at one time, would have persecuted you. 

When you say you are just being realistic about the "threat", do not tell yourself that you are different from those who found threat in Jews, or Japanese, or African Americans. 

Please, stop telling yourself, this is different

Because it is not. 

It is intolerance. It is racism. It is fear of someone who is different than you. That’s what it was then, and that's what it is now. 

Not one thing about your intolerance is different. 

The only thing that would be different is if we all decided to embrace our differences instead of fearing them. 

The only thing that would be different is if we realized that all life is important, all the time.

The only thing that would be different is recognizing how alike we all are, not how different.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Curing the hate flu

One day last winter I stopped at a drug store. It was early morning. 

A lone cashier was working, moving slowly. The man ahead of me was getting increasingly irritated and the line was getting increasingly longer. As tension built, the cashier fumbled more.

When the man got to the cashier, he exploded as she rang in his purchase. The only line I remember, as he walked out, was “I can see why you work such a crap job, you’re barely even qualified for that.”


I was next in line, and the cashier, hurt, and clearly embarrassed by the long line of people watching, leaned on the counter and began to cry. I didn't know what to do. I don’t deal well with much before my first cup of coffee.

She tried to pull herself together and began to ring in my purchases. I, and others, told her to take a moment if she needed to, glaring at the rest of the people in line, daring anyone to argue.

But everyone looked as hurt by it as I felt. One man made roughly ten people feel awful in less than twenty seconds.

She thanked us, telling us that her husband of forty three years had passed away unexpectedly the previous week. The doctors had told them he was improving, there was hope and then he was gone. She had decided to come to work because she couldn’t sit in an empty house any longer, but thought maybe she’d made the wrong decision because she was having trouble focusing.

She got through my purchase, I gave her my condolences and, as I left, others in line were doing the same.

When I got outside, the man was pacing outside his car having a loud conversation on his cell phone. I put my stuff in the back seat and he hung up as I was about to get into the car.

I couldn’t help myself.

“Hey, that lady is in there crying because you acted like an ass. Her husband just passed away. Maybe you should try giving people a break once in a while.”

I was so angry in the moment that I don’t even remember how he responded as I got in my car. But I do remember the pained look on his face. I have no idea if he went back inside or drove away.

After the fact, I felt pretty good about myself. I mean, I stuck up for this poor lady, to the big, bad man who couldn’t be bothered to show some consideration or empathy to another person.

It’s totally OK to be an ass to someone who just acted like an ass, right?

Yay me.

It wasn’t until much later in the year that something I read reminded me of that day. I realized that no matter what I had told myself at the time about how much more “honourable” I was than him, the truth was, I was angry and I wanted to hurt him. I wanted to make him feel the way he made her feel. The way the rest of us in the line felt.

His anger that morning didn’t just impact him. Or her. They impacted everyone around him.
But not once did I question why he was so angry, what kind of day he was having that lead him to treat the cashier like that. Not once did I show him the exact compassion that I expected him to show her.

But that’s what we do when we allow hate, or anger or fear to take over. We generously share it. We hurt people. And when we hurt people, they in turn hurt people, and hurt people hurt more people.

See where I’m going with this?

We’ve all had experiences that demonstrate how quickly our energy spreads. You walk into a meeting in a great mood, and by the time it’s over, you’re drained of all happy thoughts or feelings, even though nothing identifiable as "bad" has happened.

There is that one person that you dread spending time with because by the time it’s over, you feel sad, angry and frustrated.

We also all know that one person that can light up an entire room. You can’t take their eyes off of them. You leave feeling happier and lighter when you’ve been in their presence.

We must treat hate and anger as contagious illnesses, like the flu. They spread quickly and easily between as we interact throughout the day. They cloud our judgment and our compassion and our ability to empathize.

They make us so wrapped up in ourselves that we can't see beyond our own problems. We can't see the impact our words or our actions are having on someone else.

Emotions are healthy when shared respectfully, but that line is often blurred.

In my life, I’ve seen hate that has knocked the breath out of me at times. The irony of attacking someone, for attacking someone, for attacking someone, is lost on many.

I can’t say it enough, and I can't say it any clearer than this:

It does not matter how small or great of a crime is committed through hate or anger, if you respond in kind, you are no better than the person you are raging against. Hate will never, ever, put an end to hate.

What does stop hate in its tracks? Love. Compassion. Empathy. A sense of humor. Light heartedness.

Hate and anger cannot live in an environment filled with love. It’s impossible. IMPOSSIBLE.

Spend time doing something that lifts you up. Imagine someone you truly love in the face of everyone you don’t know. Would you be more patient and kind with them? Imagine all the times you screwed up, all the mistakes you’ve made, and were forgiven.

I truly believe that if every single one of us spent more time working on the energy that we give off, dealing with our own shit, developing empathy, teaching empathy to our children, taking responsibility for our lives, leading by example, the world we live in would begin to heal.

People are inherently good. Bad deeds are rarely isolated incidents. It is a culmination of life experiences, and what we are taught, that determines what road someone will go down.

And all of us are responsible for what that road is paved with. Every last one of us.

Maybe you’re so angry that you just want others around you to hurt, so for now, that’s fair. That’s where you are. You can’t see past it right now.

Maybe you're mostly friendly and kind but, like anyone, you can be driven to anger and hate. You’re working on it.

Maybe you are always kind. There are people out there who just are.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Insert inspirational quote here

I’ve never been an overly spiritual person. I was raised Catholic, but even as a kid I remember staring up at the priest and thinking “Who does this guy think he is telling me how I should live my life?” I’ve never been one to feel pressured by “shoulds” and expectations of the masses. 

As I’ve gotten older, and been through some stuff, I started looking for something to believe in again. Or perhaps looking inward to decide what I already believed in but wasn’t practicing. It’s not uncommon to return to a place where you want to believe there is something more. But I wanted something that I could believe in when things were going well, not just going badly. 

I can feel you panicking already but don’t worry, I’m not about to go on a religious rant. What you consider your religion or spirituality is your thing. Call it whatever you want. I have found peace in exercise, meditation, the outdoors, my family, my friends, the ocean, music, animals, creating, learning, supporting a cause. 

I’ve found a comfortable place of spirituality. It’s sort of like a quilt pulled from various sources over the years. Mainly if it supports being positive more than negative and feeling love more than hate, I’m feelin’ it. 

But we also live in the real world where it’s easy to feel good when you’re alone. No negative energy to drag you down, no images and news clips, no deadlines, or responsibilities, or arguments. That’s reality. 

Made more so by the prevalence of social media. We can’t even process the amount of negativity we consume in a day. 

We are drowning in it. But we don’t have to. 

Maybe you are already the most zen person alive. If so, please tell me your secrets. I am always eager to learn. 

Maybe you have no desire to be feeling any zen, and if that’s where you are, that’s fair enough. You’ve probably already stopped reading. 

It’s not a lecture, it’s mindless chatter about what has made me a happier person, and may or may not, do the same for you. So, if you’re still with me, if you’re looking for something more, then here are a few things I’m finally learning in my own journey that might help inspire you in yours.

Being spiritual, or even just being a good person, takes a bloody awful lot of work. 

I am a pretty kind person by nature. But sometimes I want to tell people to fuck off. Sometimes I do.  Sometimes I find myself dragged into some petty argument and wonder how I got there. Sometimes I think really awful things about people and I act less than graciously. I can be angry, sad, bitter, sarcastic, vengeful and petty. Fun, eh?

But all of those things just end up making me feel like shit. And if those things make you feel good, then maybe you should consider why. 

The more time I in spend meditation, learning how to pay attention to my thoughts and actions, and the more time I spend outdoors, with people who inspire me, lift me up, make me laugh, the more time I take to create and breathe and appreciate, the quicker I am able to catch myself in the moments when I start spiraling into the person I don’t want to be. I delete the tweet, I pull out of the argument, I walk away. In other words, when you learn to become mindful of your thoughts and feelings, and do things that you love, it becomes very easy to recognize when your thoughts are going south to negativity or doubt or fear or anger. Then you change them. It becomes habit. Yes, you can choose your thoughts. But only when you start to pay attention to them. 

Spirituality is a tool, not a magic solution to your problems. And you have to work at it every moment of every day. 

The only person you should be trying to fix is yourself. 

The better I act, the better people respond. Try it for a day. As recently as today, I felt attacked by somebody. My first reaction was to tear a strip off of them, attack their shortcomings, react with the same anger they attacked me with. But I stopped and thought about my response. I answered respectfully without backing down from my position. They responded in kind. Just like that, the entire situation was diffused. Rather then each of us taking up time and energy and allowing the whole day to spiral into a negative abyss, we resolved it and moved on. Nobody won or lost. And that’s ok.

I can’t solve the world’s problems. 

But I can do everything in my power to positively affect the people around me that I interact with every day. I can vote. I can write a letter. I can smile at people on the street. I can stand in line peacefully. I can be polite. I can give what I have to give, even if it’s not much. I can choose to be nicer.

The advent of social media has not just left us disconnected and bombarded with images and stories and opinions and negativity that leave us feeling helpless, it’s made us forget that the people we interact with are people. With all the emotions and troubles and pain and loss and fear as you.

I lost my best friend a few months ago unexpectedly. We have been friends since we were little kids. He was a brother to me. I can’t actually put into words what I lost when I lost him. When his mother asked me to write something for the funeral, I couldn’t figure out how to fit, on one page, all of the amazing things about him. His laughter, his loyalty, his generosity, his ability to shrug off negativity. It was an endless list of good. And it was all true. I didn’t have to struggle to find those words.

It made me think, what would someone write about me?

I want to be worthy of what someone writes about me.

Forgiveness brings you freedom. 

It doesn’t mean someone has to be let off the hook or back in your life. It doesn’t mean that there are not consequences, but, I believe, it’s important to remember that things don’t happen in a bubble. People act the way they do because of the experiences they’ve had, period.

The guy who shot someone has mental illness. The girl who killed someone was abused. The kid who stole lives in poverty.

I’m not making excuses. Everyone is responsible for their own actions, and there have to be consequences, but it’s naïve to believe that the lives people lead, and the mistakes that they make, are not related to the society we’ve built. With all its beauty, and its horror.

It’s naïve to believe that our actions don’t affect the greater world around us.

Hate will never, ever, diffuse hate. And it will eat you alive.

All life is important. All of it. And if we don’t protect it, we will all pay the price, eventually. 

I don't really have anything else to say about that.

I’m not saying that life is all laughter and goodness. I’m not saying that I float out of bed every day with roses coming out of my ass. I’m not saying that a little negativity, when it comes with some discussion and alternative solutions, isn’t useful. I'm not saying that horrible shit doesn't happen every day. But it happens to all of us. We are not alone in that. That fact connects us, it shouldn't divide us. 

I’m certainly not saying that if we all hold hands and have a fucking sing-a-long, everything will immediately be better. 

What I am saying is that I think we are reaching an explosive place in our reality. 

People are feeling scared and sad and angry and overwhelmed and helpless. We look outside for solutions instead of inside. We’re afraid to spend ten minutes in our own heads. We fill our time with food and alcohol and Netflix and iPhones and anything else we can find to avoid ourselves. 

What I am saying is I know we want to feel better. 

We feel moments of pure joy and happiness and laughter. We see examples of good every single day. 

We want to be happier, more grateful, nicer, more patient. 

We want to feel more connected. If we didn’t, social media wouldn’t be ruling the world. 

What I am saying, is that maybe we need to flip how we connect

Because honestly, I think that’s the only hope we have.