Tag Archives: cultures

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.