On Stereotypes: Are you in there?

A few years go, Carolyn and I spent a special weekend at a small conference hosted by Ram Dass. We enjoyed his combination of Eastern Wisdom and his clear-eyed acceptance of his own human foibles. One memorable “take-away” was his insight that human beings tended to wrap themselves in their bodies, retreat to the mind, and trudge through the world with little presence. Many of us are too often not where we are or when we are. It can be a problem.

Ram Dass said that he liked to say to people, in effect, “Are you in there? I’m in here. Want to come out and play?” Once in a while this insight takes a hold of my boyish enthusiasm, and on this morning’s walk I opened to the game. It transformed the day from wonderful to magical.

As we walked along this beach,
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I watched a German couple approach. They seemed to me to be hidden deep inside, and fearful of encounter. I saw that they had their shoes in their hands, so looking into their eyes, I asked “Is the water cold?” Whoosh! The doors flew open and their souls came rushing out to see and be seen. Before very long, they were regaling us with their recent trip to Grenada and the four hours they spent in the Alhambra. We parted with smiles and handshakes.

The morning’s gifts continued to unfold: a conversation in Spanish with a lovely young woman from Colombia; a woman from Finland who spends half the year here in Spain; two German women, retired economists, who will soon be studying energy healing in an Ashram in India; a Spanish woman with two remarkable children. As we stopped for coffee at a seaside cafe, I asked a man if he were enjoying his carrot cake, and again, all the lights came on. It turns out they were a delightful couple from Wales who were astounded that a philistine American would be a fan of Dylan Thomas.

This last point, is important, I think.  We Americans have earned the stereotype of being greedy to the point of selfishness, loud, lacking empathy, and being generally self-centered.  We, of course, are not alone in being stereotyped–or stereotyping.  I can easily ferret out many lingering prejudices lurking in the shadows of my own consciousness: stodgy Germans, drunken Irishmen, volatile Italians, snotty French, and damp, provincial Brits.  The beautiful thing is that when I actually meet people from these places, the stereotypes evaporate in the warmth of the human heart.  Even when the stereotypes seem to hold, they are quickly seen as incredibly superficial–my own projections, really–and the soulful depths of each unique individual emerge.

I also find that many people I meet are visibly bemused, and very surprised, to meet Americans who are quiet and gentle, interested in other cultures and languages, and doing their best to live respectful and loving lives.   So Carolyn and I have never visited the Eiffel tower, or the Empire State Building, or the Coliseum.  We certainly travel to enjoy nature’s lavish gifts, and the beauty that flows from human hands in art, architecture and–perhaps especially–food.  But the essence of the experience for us is the meeting of the human spirit.  I believe if we all could touch and be touched at the level of the heart, fearful stereotypes would indeed dissolve, and this would be a step toward easing the hostilities that are fed by those stereotypical abstractions.  “You have to be taught to hate,” sings a song in South Pacific.  So, too, we can learn to love.

8 thoughts on “On Stereotypes: Are you in there?

  1. Hariod Brawn

    Thank you for this delightful, touching and sincere reminder to, as I was once reminded by a very dear though simple woman in her nineties – “speak as you find”. She was not admonishing me, though instead was offering one of her life’s lessons; and I have carried that thought of hers with me for some 30 or more years now. It has served me well, and I try consciously to remain uninfluenced by other’s perceptions of third parties, which rarely are accurate in any case.

    Your article, John, and more specifically the quoted observation of Ram Dass, also reminds me of a comment made by an abbot of a Buddhist monastery to a newly ordained monk, one who was ferociously intellectual and would ruthlessly reduce and analyse every utterance or thought to a series of dry and discrete elements: “You are a head on a stick” the abbot told him. The implication was of course that the monk was far too self-contained, insular and unfeeling. Aside from knocking the rougher edges off the pride this fellow had in his intellect, it was a reminder to the monk that he was not an island, that his very existence, as one dependent upon giving, was inextricably communal. He needed to come out of the head and engage the sangha in felt expressions of dhamma, compassion and so forth.

    “When I confront a human being as my Thou and speak the basic word I-Thou to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things. He is no longer He or She, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighbour-less and seamless, he is Thou and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light.”

    ― Martin Buber

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    1. jhanagan2014 Post author

      Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful comment, Hariod. As you know, Buber is one of my heroes. Have you come across a short series of his essays assembled under the title “The Way of Man?” The style is of course outdated, but there are some stimulating gems scattered through these brief reflections.

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  2. inspiredbybooks

    A lovely and true piece of writing. It is the work of a lifetime, I think, to be fully present to others and ourselves…to shut out distracting thoughts and actually drive, eat or play without worrying about the casserole in the oven.

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    1. jhanagan2014 Post author

      Thank you, Julie. And we meet magnificent ambassadors from all over the world. I think that thousands and thousands of sweet, vulnerable people offset that sad, broken ISIS executioner. I guess we have to believe in the power of leaven.

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  3. Mary Kendall

    What you have said here should be mandatory reading for anyone who ventures out beyond their doorstoop. My husband and I have had similar experiences whenever we make this effort to connect. As part of a loving kindness/Metta practice, it helps you see we are all people ready to connect if given half a chance. You and Caroline are an inspiration.

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