Proximity Leads to Understanding

Monday, July 13, 2015 - 5:25am

Proximity Leads to Understanding

As soon as the movie, Milk, came out in 2008, I went to see it. The movie is a biographical depiction of the life of Harvey Milk, who in 1977 became the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States. He ran for the Board of Supervisors three times before being elected in 1977.

There is a scene in the movie I’ve never forgotten, and which I’ve been reflecting on a lot lately. In the scene, Harvey Milk makes an appeal to closeted gays to come out to their families, friends, and co-workers so the straight world might stop demonizing an abstract idea. He hands the phone to someone who looks terribly frightened, but goes and makes the call. I think of that moment every time there is an advance in justice for people in the LGBTIQ community, such as the recent Supreme Court decision on marriage equality.

Harvey Milk stands in front of his Castro Street camera store, circa 1977.

(Dan Monk / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).)

So many people braved their fears and just said, "This is who I am," because of the prescience of Harvey Milk’s vision, and it has gotten harder and harder to pretend that gay people are completely apart from “us.”

Stranger #51, from the photographer's series, 100 Strangers. Thierry is a freelance engineer in biotechnology. He helps companies in managing projects from conception to completion in a very specific area.

(Antoine Robiez / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

It is one thing, after all, to create and then demonize an “other” out of nothing: no connection, no relationship, no knowledge of someone’s hopes and fears, their dreams and their sorrows. It is quite another thing if the world is attempting to create an “other” out of and then demonize Uncle Joe, cousin Jill, your neighbor, your son, your daughter.

Stranger #64 (Élodie), from the photographer's series, 100 Strangers.

(Antoine Robiez / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

We can be strongly conditioned, in the abstract, to think of others in terms of stereotypes. The use of stereotypes may be an evolutionary survival strategy for us to make sense of an immeasurably chaotic world, but it is also a cultural habit that creates psychological distance for each and every one of us. Thinking in rigid categories of projection locks us into a dynamic of seeing the world in terms of Us-versus-Them.

Stranger #75 (Sergei), from the photographer's series, 100 Strangers.

(Antoine Robiez / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

This sense of division, isolation, and separateness from others that we tend to take as fact is actually bred by our minds. With habitual ways of thinking, we create the fiction of being completely separate from anyone seen as different. That disconnect may provide a superficial sense of control, but we ultimately make ourselves more and more isolated. As a result, we find ourselves increasingly objectifying particular individuals or entire groups of people — either through antipathy, through prejudice, or even just through indifference.

We start living in a world of mental projections, a world without substance, without dimensionality. When there is no substance, when there are only shadows and ghosts born from our minds, there is no sense of real connection. When there is no dimensionality, there is no chance for real understanding.

Stranger #21 (Inconnue), from the photographer's series, 100 Strangers.

(Antoine Robiez / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

Our society also perpetuates a dualistic worldview of who is like us and who isn’t. Not only does seeing the world in these terms keep us at arms length from other people, it also places our own sense of who we are in a box. We then feel a tighter grip on our habitual assumptions that tend to inform the way we act and define ourselves. Instead, we can learn to gain insight into our fundamental connectedness, and liberate ourselves from the impulse to only understand the world in terms of boundaries and labels.

It turns out that proximity leads to understanding.

Stranger #67 (Jacque), from the photographer's series, 100 Strangers.

(Antoine Robiez / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

According to a recent study, longer-term interpersonal contact between hostile groups counteracts biases by letting people get to know one another as individuals, rather than as parts of a group. Thomas F. Pettigrew, a research professor of social psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, analyzed more than 500 studies on intergroup contact. In this research, he found that even in areas where ethnic groups were in conflict and viewed one another through lenses of negative stereotypes, individuals who had close friends within the other group exhibited little or no such prejudice. They seemed to realize the many ways those formerly demonized “others” were “just like me.”

And we can simulate that proximity internally by truly considering another person.

Stranger #47 (Vicky), from the photographer's series, 100 Strangers.

(Antoine Robiez / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

This is a beautiful reflective exercise I learned from my friend and colleague, Mirabai Bush.

Just Like Me
You can do this practice by bringing someone to mind or it can be done silently when meeting someone new. You can use any of these phrases, or any others that seem more appropriate.

The Instructions:
Bring someone to mind, a fellow human being, just like you. Now silently repeat any number of these phrases, while thinking of them.

This person has a body and a mind, just like me. 

This person has feelings, emotions and thoughts, just like me. 

This person has in his or her life, experienced physical and emotional pain and suffering, just like me. 

This person has at some point been sad, disappointed, angry, or hurt, just like me.
This person has felt unworthy or inadequate, just like me.
This person worries and is frightened sometimes, just like me.
This person has longed for friendship, just like me.
This person is learning about life, just like me.
This person wants to be caring and kind to others, just like me.
This person wants to be content with what life has given, just like me.
This person wishes to be free from pain and suffering, just like me. 

This person wishes to be safe and healthy, just like me. 

This person wishes to be happy, just like me.
This person wishes to be loved, just like me.

Now, allow some wishes for well-being to arise:
I wish that this person have the strength, resources, and social support to navigate the difficulties in life with ease.
I wish that this person be free from pain and suffering. 

I wish that this person be peaceful and happy.
I wish that this person be loved.
Because this person is a fellow human being, just like me.

Try it with a friend, a family member, a colleague. Then try it with someone you have somehow never at all considered to be…just like you.

Stranger #56 (Jef), from the photographer's series, 100 Strangers.

(Antoine Robiez / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

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Sharon Salzberg

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears monthly.

She is a meditation teacher and the cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. She is the author of many books, including Love Your Enemies, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, and Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace.

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I have found that the more I am at peace within myself and learn to stop criticising and judging my own actions and thoughts, the easier it is to show and feel compassion to others. Then I can hold the loving kindness thoughts in my heart when someone who seems "other" wanders into my territory, or I wander into theirs. Learning to be kind to ourselves takes commitment and can be the hardest daily intention for some people. There's a reason Dr Paul Gilbert wrote "The Compassionate Mind"!
Thank you for your article, I enjoyed it.

My grandmother, a primary influence in my life & a truly remarkable individual, shared an idea with me (at age 7) that shaped my worldview for the rest of my life. I asked her why someone had behaved in a way that had hurt me. Her response was, "Sugar, there are some people in this world that are just evil...but not very many. Hitler was probably evil. BUT MOST OF US ARE JUST DOING THE BEST WE CAN WITH WHAT GOD GAVE US".

A great article but one "preaching to the choir" I think. It seems to me that the problems with pre judging comes with "outliers". Those who have no desire nor any opportunity to know others who are different from themselves. I'm in my mid sixties, white and female. I started out as a social worker in the early seventies working with American Indians. Later I worked with inner city Detroit foster children their birth families and their foster families. I had to prove myself not to be a rich b---- from the suburbs. It wasn't easy but we all learned something. The stories I could tell.

perhaps you might consider changing "the stories I could tell" to "the stories I do tell" to add dimension to those of us who have not had your experience but could stand to learn from it. More in my general comment below. But please consider it.

It seems, to me, few people are interested. I loved the work because of the people. Thank you for showing interest.

Thank you Ms Salzman. I wish this message would have gotten to Dylann Roof before he stepped into that Church. And since that is not possible now, I hope it will reach him and other emotionally lonely and disconnected people who seem to fall prey to the Myth and Fear of the Other. Your meditation or prayer is wonderful. I'm kind of a follower of Thich Naht Hahn and he advises sending such thoughts everyday to 1- someone you love, 2- someone you have hurt, 3- someone you like, 4- someone who has harmed you or your family, and 5- someone you don't know but with whom you have crossed paths. Thank you to you for such a beautiful message.

Just Like Me exercise is powerful. Thank you Mirabai Bush and thank On Being for this thoughtful post.

Thanks for this Sharon. As a documentary photographer I had the opportunity 3 years ago to adventure into what has become a visual, literary and emotional journey with thanks to a chance meeting in a NYC park while photographing flowers. The tap on my shoulder telling me of more colorful and prettier flowers in another park has led me to dialogue and friendship with that tapper on my shoulder, a prostitute/escort who over time and conversation has led to hours of interaction and "real talk" not to mention the over 1500 images that encompass the portraiture and portrayal of these woman as humans, struggling with many of the strife we all do, as well as some which are unique to their lifestyle and profession. The literal opening of my eyes has come slowly, carefully and fully and blossomed as the promised pretty colorful flowers in another park - for them (about 75 of them) and me. Who knew.

It seems healthy, it's beautiful. Perhaps you could also have this attitude who practices violence of all kinds against one or other. Although only up to that point helps. From there, this attitude is not good, it is not useful, considering the scenario that the violent person continues to persist. For example: the power of international banks stifle the interest of the poor majority. There is an institution, a machinery, a great mechanism (capitalism) that advances against local interests. It attacks them, it impoverishes them. Now, is this so useful? Growing resistance group is so vital at this time as to know openning our hearts to people who do so.

Spanish: Me parece sano, es hermoso. Inclusive se podría tener esta actitud con quien ejerce violencia de todo tipo contra uno o contra otros. Pero hasta ahí ayuda. Desde ahí esta actitud no es buena, no es útil, si consideramos el escenario de que el violento siga pesistiendo. Por ejemplo: el poder de los bancos internacionales asfixia el interés de la mayoría pobre. Hay una institución, una maquinaria, un gran mecanismo (el capitalismo) que avanza contra los intereses locales. Los ataca, los empobrece. Y ahora, ¿es útil esta manera? Cultivar la resistencia grupal es tan vital en este tiempo como saber abrir nuestro corazón a quienes también lo hacen.

Reciting set phrases as a meditation would seem more effective if they were believable and true. But there are plenty of people who...
...never feel unworthy or inadequate. Narcissists and egotists always feel superior and special. not long for friendship; they long for domination.
...have no interest in learning, about life or anything else.
...see caring and kindness as signs of weakness and wish to avoid them at all costs.
...will never be content with what life has given. They always crave more, more and more.

I'm reminded of when I began to really understand how, as Sharon says "stereotypes may be an evolutionary survival strategy."

It was explained it to me in this way--
Historically, when we encountered wild animals that threatened our existence, it was in our best interest to stereotype. We had a dangerous run-in with a tiger, and suddenly we were weary of all large cats. Or if we had seen a snake, we were subsequently on hyper-alert and may react to a stick on the path as if it was a snake. We took the 'better safe than sorry' route, and this reaction was instilled in us as a means of survival.

The heartbreaking thing is that many of us are stuck in survival fight/flight mode from unresolved/unhealed stress and trauma, and this evolutionary skill further fuels unfounded hatred and otherizing.

I really appreciate the 'Just Like Me' exercise to encourage empathy and understanding. Thank you, Sharon.

Thank you, Sharon (& Mirabai) for the practical simplicity of this approach to embracing more of the cup of life with others around me. I am currently doing mindfulness studies and having stunning adventures that keep enriching my life beyond my imagination! Kathy