I saw a video online the other day about the most dangerous four-letter word. This word has the power to divide families and pit nations against each other. I wanted to share my thoughts about this dangerous word.
This discussion is a bit removed from my blog’s original topic regarding my travels, but it ties in with some of the underlying themes I’ve touched upon.
First, here is the video on YouTube. It’s a TEDx presentation by Dick Simon in which he discusses this most dangerous word: “them”. Take the time to watch it (about 15 minutes) before reading on.
My initial thoughts
Mr. Simon explains very well that “themifying” (applying the label of “them” to anybody we consider “not us”) is dangerous and causes mountains of hardship. Based on his presentation, I think most of us would agree that the moment we put a “them” label on someone, we’ve immediately put up a barrier between us. These walls limit our ability to see the other person as anything other than as an outsider, an enemy, and make it harder to see the human being inside.
I’d like to present an additional side to this topic, one that the presenter didn’t discuss. I want to add the reasons why the pronouns “them” and “us” are illusions, and why we shouldn’t be vilifying “them” in the first place.
A bit of science
Have you ever thought about how your breathing connects you to every human on this planet? Every atom that we call collectively “air” (all the oxygen, nitrogen and other elements) has traveled the world before coming into your lungs to give you life. After these atoms are transformed and moved through your circulatory system, you exhale them so that they can give life to another being on this planet.
This means that, whether you like it or not, at this very moment you are breathing in air that “they” have already breathed. “They” could be your loving spouse, your favourite teacher, or your worst enemy across the globe. Over the years, all the air on this planet is recycled and crosses the globe. The air that “they” breathe eventually makes its way to you so that you can take another breath. And I haven’t even talked about the water molecules you drink or the food you eat.
I think it’s fascinating to think that we’re one big inter-connected world just by the fact that we’re all breathing.
Now, let’s take a moment to zoom in on the atoms of your body. Zoom in all the way until you can see inside the protons and electrons spinning around, and even see inside the quarks and bosons zipping inside those. Physicists have postulated that all we’d see is energy vibrating in shapes called “strings”, and that the strings are all the same. My strings look identical to yours, and they may actually extend from me to you. The energy we’re made of connects us together!
A bit of spirit
So, what are those vibrating strings of energy? I’m sure physicists will continue exploring ways to magnify these strings to see what they’re made of, but I think there’s an answer that they won’t ever be able to prove with mathematical equations.
How far can you zoom in and sub-divide this energy? Have you imagined what lies “behind” this energy? What keeps it going? What created it in the first place?
I’m getting theological here, so I’ll let these questions linger in your imagination. Could it be a divine source of energy that is keeping the whole universe alive, holding together atoms and connecting you, me, and “them”?
Are they evil?
Perhaps my explanations above haven’t changed your perception of the separation between “us” and “them.” So, let’s consider instead whether “they” are bad or evil.
We’ve probably all had the experience of already being in a bad mood when something aggravates us again, causing us to blow up, go on a rampage, or commit a number of aggressive acts. Our perception while we are already angry has been skewed, which makes the new aggravation seem even worse. I use the analogy of “angry glasses”: everything we see while we wear them is tinted by the colour of the glasses.
Are you a bad person because of how you acted while wearing your angry glasses? I say no. Consider this:
- I think there is nothing more innocent in the world than a new-born baby. It’s come into this world, ready to start a new life. I think we all agree that the baby is not a bad person.
- I’m not going to discuss the belief by some religions that all babies are born “sinners”. I find it unfathomable that a new human taking his or her first breath on Earth is already “bad”.
- Now, imagine that this baby grows into a toddler. He gets angry at his mother for asking him to pick up his toys. Let’s pretend this is the first time he feels anger in his life, and he expresses it with a grumpy pout. This little boy isn’t a bad person, is he?
- If his parents have not taught him a healthy way to deal with anger, he won’t learn how he can take off his angry glasses.
- Later on, his little sister may break one of his favourite toys. Because he’s still wearing his angry glasses, he’ll add to his grumpy pout by calling his sister stupid. Is this boy a bad person now?
- A while later, now wearing two layers of angry glasses, he gets angry when a friend doesn’t share a cookie. Nobody has shown him that his view is skewed by the layers of anger-tinted glasses, and that the situation isn’t as grave as he’s perceiving it. He still doesn’t know that he can take off the glasses and see the world in a new way. Our boy may react with screaming and name-calling. Does this make him bad?
- As a teenager, his world-view is distorted by the new layers of glasses he’s accumulated. Many things make his angry, and he frequently exhibits rough physical behaviour and profane language. Is this where we draw the line between a good person and a bad one?
- Now an adult, he sees nothing clearly because he’s wearing many pairs of glasses. His perception is so warped that he can no longer see a world of joy. Absolutely everything is bad in his eyes. If he becomes violent and injures someone, do we call him “bad”?
Let’s imagine now that his parents did give him a mechanism to cope with anger: eat a cookie and you’ll feel better. A cookie helps you forget your anger so that you don’t have to feel it for a little while. Do we consider the grown-up man in our example who obsessively eats cookies as evil?
Now let’s substitute alcohol for the cookies. Alcohol dulls pain momentarily too; it never takes off the angry glasses, but it does put up shades for a bit so that you don’t have to look at anything for a little while.
What if, instead of alcohol or cookies, the man in our example learned another way of dealing with a problem: slap that loud-mouthed b_tch in the face so that “she shuts up for a minute for me to think”. A child who has lived in an abusive home could very well grow up and continue that cycle.
Does the alcohol or abuse make our man a bad person? How about sex, nail-biting, drugs, shoe shopping, binge TV?
“But surely, he (or she, or they) should know better!”
I’m sure you are probably saying “well, now that he’s grown up, he should know better than to use alcohol or hit his wife!” Should he? How could he, if nobody in his entire life has shown him that he can take off his anger glasses and see a wonderful world of peace? If his perception has been altered so much by anger, would it be possible for him to see anything else but anger? We would need to put a crack in his thick glasses so that we could shine a light of hope to help him see another way.
“Okay, but his parents should have known better!” Should they? If they were wearing anger glasses their entire lives, what else do you think they could teach their son?
Even if you’ve lived through a life of abuse / alcoholism / any other coping mechanism and were able to teach your children a different way to live life, we can’t assume that everybody else can. You were lucky that somewhere along the way you learned to see things in a new light.
Now, as a thought experiment, think about what would happen if the message passed from parent to child were “if only those stupid people from country X would shut up.”
I’m not saying that you should blindly accept all the behaviours of the people around you. (The topic of standing up for your beliefs is a blog post for another day, perhaps.) If someone does something that you find hurtful or “wrong”, remember that behind every human being and every action is a story. And behind that story is the innocent baby opening his eyes for the first time.
The TEDx presentation has made us think of racism and the horrors that can arise from that. We can also extend our scope a bit and think of other “thems” in our lives. Mr. Simon mentions that we sometimes apply this label to spouses, parents, neighbours. Imagine how much more compassionate we would be, how much more enjoyable our interactions would be, if we dropped “them” for the cashier at the grocery store, the homeless man we cross on the street, our coworkers and bosses, our landlord, the bank, the phone company, the other sports team, the other university…
When we remember that, at their core, every human is an innocent baby and that “we” are always connected with “them”, we can open our hearts to be kinder and more loving with the people in our lives.