I had imagined looking at my 20's from a few different angles in these coming weeks, but honestly that sounds a little boring to me (and I am me). But in this very bizarre and alarming time in America, I do want to talk about one more aspect of my 20s. One that is very important to me. Learning. Not book learning precisely, but the kind of learning that comes from slowly dissolving your egoic, always-right (correct) brain. The learning to overcome my intense addiction to telling lies and exaggerating stories. My conquering of my complete know-it-all stance toward conversation, replaced with a more conciliatory, receptive, listening version of myself. Even someone who, when they know they are right, can simply let it go (this one I'm still working on). Does any of this make sense? Let's delve in.
It's impossible to avoid politics at this point. I have never considered myself a political person, but the indignities being committed at this point are about human rights and empathy. Two things I believe in at my absolute core. And the most frustrating part of the political debate, is the large portion of the country whose version of political debate is to opt out of political knowledge, or at least knowledge about how the government actually functions. Which I believe ultimately comes from a lack of empathy fostered by prolonged exposure to tribal rallying voices on social media, a paranoid counter-cultural media presence that offers alternate-facts, op/ed articles published in the same manner as normal non-opinion news, AND most importantly, from a lack of diverse life experience.
I will act as the case in point. I grew up in the suburbs of Houston and the suburbs of Richmond. I had very few substantial experiences with people of different racial backgrounds. I was never raised to have any prejudice against people of other backgrounds, but my parents often said so many of the non-things that make the pointillistic painting of implicit bias. The "I don't care what color you ares," the belief that your bank account was representative of hard work alone, the fear of crime in cities and the avoidance of "bad neighborhoods" without exploration of how those neighborhoods came to be and the unconscious whispering of the word black like a bad word.
I went off to college, near a big city at one of the most diverse colleges in the country. I took classes with Muslims and students from all over the world. I asked them how they felt about our professors and watched with glee as they parsed through the Burger King menu for what they could eat. And because of this very small, but very real experience, there is no hesitation when I hear someone even imply that Muslims are de facto terrorists, I know that this is fear mongering pure and simple. While there are certain aspects of Islam that I disagree with, especially views towards women, upon hearing how they view the hijab, my opinion seems to be only that of an outsider, and thus not particularly relevant, important, or all that informed. But I can honestly remember after 9/11, I was certainly very wary of Islam, which I knew nothing about save that it was the religion of the 9/11 terrorists. A religion which was always portrayed in film as incredibly intense and dehumanizing. I can clearly say, my experiences with people from other cultures lessened my fear and upped my empathy. I do not believe this is an over-simplification. I believe this is as simple a human truth as any. As simple as "wrong is an addictive, repetitive story; Right is where the movement is."
When I was young, I discovered the power of a lie. Where did my desire to lie come from? I was a sensitive little guy (still am). I hated getting in trouble. I mean, the walls would melt and the air would thicken and everything would rush toward me in a last gasp of existence, if I burned my ramen on the stove and my mom yelled at me that this was exactly why I am not responsible enough to be left on my own. So, I--out of my emotional agitation at being threatened with disapproval--learned to stretch the truth and then to outright lie. Of course when you develop a skill like this you are unaware of what the defense is really against. I lied to friends, family, people at church and even occasionally myself. I told the truth most of the time, but every time i would lie, a little buzz would engage in my bones. A taboo ringing in my marrow. And I got addicted to the feeling of wrong. Of getting away with it. Always wondering when I would be found out.
I never examined my bad habit as anything more than a junk food diet for the soul, something I'd grow out of, but it wasn't until I started at my second college and met people who liked me for exactly who I was, that I began to feel very differently when the familiar buzz of my lies settled in again. "why?" Why lie to these people who do not know you? Who do not know the briar garden of lies you have been maintaining for years about your childhood. Who seem excited to hear about anything involving your life, and find you anything but boring. And it was only when I admitted to myself and to my friends that I lie without hesitation and I don't know why, that I was able to tackle my decades long habit. The reaction from friends was, "oh, me too," (another sign that these were my people). And thus I began the hard work of being OK with who I am and the stories that come with that.
The other great hurdle of my emotional life, was learning to admit that I don't know things. Another habit I developed early. I would shut down arguments, assert opinions I had only formed in the moment as if I were sure (there wasn't yet smartphones to immediately expose my false bravura). As I grew older and experienced more and more people, I realized that my assumption that most people were dumb, was in and of itself, limiting, small minded, silly. A binary that leads to isolation and emotional flatlines. People are complicated, they are beautiful, and there is ALWAYS something to learn from them. As a writer and general lover of stories it is a disservice not to listen. And even more not to learn to interview your fellow man. There is such truly wonderful stuff in our shared experiences. And you won't hear word one, if you're telling them who they are, why they are, how it is. Even listening to people you disagree with helps paint a deep and rich picture of the world and all the ways to experience it. A deepening of what, class? (In unison ) Em-pa-thy. Very good.
I've said it before and I'll say it till the end. At the end of the day, empathy is the only truly powerful and redeeming quality of mankind. Without it, we have nothing to offer the world but pain, waste and destruction.
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