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"THEY"

Updated: Jul 26

Hello and welcome to this glorious Saturday, July 11, 2020! Today is a rare and precious day that will never come again.

I’ve been inspired to write how everything isn’t so black and white for a while meow, but over the last few weeks when I sat down to write, other ideas surfaced. So today is the day.

I feel like what inspires me to explore and write about this topic is our propensity to label, categorize and generalize. The more I meditate on this, the more I read the news, the more I have conversations about “us” and “them”, the more I’m convinced that never is there an all-encompassing label for any person (situation, place, or thing). Yet, how many times in a day do we use the words, “they” and “we.” Who exactly are “they?” Who exactly are “we?”

Given the current overwhelming divisiveness, some of the most pervasive labels are those attached to liberals and conservatives. But let me back up here a moment before I dive into that mess.

When I was in graduate school, my papers were marked down over and over for making generalized statements – especially in philosophy! I often had professors write in the margins of graded papers “Dan, who exactly are you referring to here?” I knew exactly who I was talking about! You know, “them!” “Those people!” -- The all-encompassing undefined “they!” I remember writing statements like, “people need to learn to…” In red caps, my advisor would write, “WHAT PEOPLE? WHO?” It was so frustrating. But it taught me a great lesson – a lesson that I still haven’t completely learned to put into practice.

If I think about people, we’re all more similar than we are different. Nevertheless, our differences are by degrees only. Everything isn’t so black and white. It’s as if our qualities and liabilities, our virtues and vices are on sliding scales. Even so, there is a strong tendency to make inferences based on limited perspectives. In other words, there is an inclination to believe that “if you support a, b and c, then that means that you are x, y and z.” For instance, “If you support Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem, then you must hate America.” I’ve personally heard that one. Or, how about, “If you like guns, then you don’t respect life.” These inferences fail all logical examination yet are used widely.

If I investigate my own viewpoints, I find that I too have held some very troubling beliefs. In grad school, I discovered that I was racist. Yes, in my social justice coursework, it became very clear that many of the opinions that I held towards Blacks, Asians, Indians, etc., were in fact laden with prejudgments, were alienating and came from a place of superiority. I didn’t know. I was saddened and shocked and felt what many refer to as White Guilt! This discovery in no way meant that I consciously devalued or intentionally dehumanized people of different color and culture, it simply pointed out to me that I indeed have a place on the racist continuum (I have a place on every continuum!). I didn’t ask to be placed on this sliding scale—it was just built into who I am by the society in which I lived.

I can’t believe that I’m going to share this but when I was a senior in high school, I had a Confederate flag hanging on the wall of my apartment. I was too young and too naïve to know what it meant, and I didn’t bother to explore the meaning. In my youthful ignorance, I thought history was useless. At that time in my life, I coveted the Dukes of Hazard’s bad-ass 1969 Dodge Charger – the “General Lee” which of course was painted with the contentious flag. I hated that show but I loved that car. Lordy! Fortunately, I can confidently say that where I was on the racist continuum in the 1980’s is not where I’m at today. Clearly, we are not fixed beings with fixed ideas. People, all of us, really do change!

In thinking about this ”they” issue from a different perspective, what kind of person would you identify me as? My assumption here is that who I am to you is defined by the conditions in which we met and how long you’ve known me. There are so many variables! If you knew me when I was 9, you might identify me as an obnoxious, hyperactive liar – this would be accurate. If you knew me as a 15-year-old, you might identify me as an avid skier – also accurate. If you knew me as a young adult, you might know me as a nurse. Accurate. Depending on the conditions in which we met when I was a nurse, you may regard me as an empathetic professional holding your hand in a time of crisis, or, you might think of me as an insensitive nurse who poked you with needles – both accurate. If you knew me in 2008, you might identify me as a hopeless addict – accurate. If we met in grad school, you might know me as an arrogant philosophy student – accurate. Maybe these weekly letters are the only way in which you know me – whatever you think of me is indeed accurate. The truth is, there are as many versions of me as there are people who know me. Although however you identify me is accurate, no one description fully encompasses who I am as a person. I am all these identities and more.

So, when I think about “Jane Doe,” I’m starting to realize that she is far more than my limited perspective based on our interactions. My perspective in no way captures who she is, and it seldom takes into account that she is changing all the time.

There is no “They!

My mindfulness practice is helping me to learn that for each and every person, “liberal” means something different and “conservative” means something different. So, when we talk about people (situations, places, things) in these generalized terms, we are in no way recognizing or honoring all that a person is and the fact that “they” are constantly changing.

I feel like we are most definitely limited by our language. But if we are mindful when having these difficult discussions, we can use language that more accurately reflects reality – we all have a place on the continuum of whatever topic we’re discussing, we are all changing all the time, and each one of us has a limited perspective. I’ve found that it’s much more accurate and effective to talk about my experience and what I ought to be doing than it is to talk about how right “we” are or how “they” are flawed and to blame.

I love you and there isn’t anything that you can do about it!

Respecting all that you are,

Dan

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