Two women, worlds apart, are talking.
“It is hard to listen to me?”
“It’s not hard. I have my alarm system turned off.”On Being with Krista Tippett, interview with Arlie Hochschild
You know the feeling. My alarm system is on almost all of the time, so much so that I don’t even realize I have an alarm system. My hackles get raised when Fox & Friends plays on the gym’s TV during my morning workout, or when I think people are going to speak derogatorily about immigrants, Muslims, the LGBT community, Millennials, etc. Such things are my alarm system finely tuned to.
Our church is doing a book study called “Anxious to Talk About It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully About Racism,” by Carolyn Helsel. Talk about an opportunity for alarm bells! “Anxious” is an appropriate word: we can be anxious that we will say something offensive, anxious that the conversation is going to devolve into politics, anxious that someone else is going to say something that really gets under our skin and our face will flush and we will try and talk honestly about systemic racism without being written off as a naïve, bleeding-heart liberal (oh whoops, was that just me??).
What would happen if we could just listen to people without alarm systems going off? With the understanding that others will say things we don’t agree with, but that we don’t have to let this hurt us. They got to their positions and beliefs somehow, just as we got to ours.
Don’t think I’m suggesting we just roll over and play dead when the “other side” starts raising its voice. Not at all. I firmly believe in the importance of truth-telling, honesty, and objectivity. But I’m also aware that facts do little to change people’s opinions when their emotions point them a different way.
Our brains are ruled by confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is not exactly objective: it feigns objectivity while really just reinforcing what we already believe at an emotional, gut level. We want so badly to understand the world we live in and make it a safe, habitable place. We make it safe by making it small. Once we think we understand something, we try and fit in all new pieces of information into the systems we have already worked out for ourselves. This has been our survival strategy for millennia upon millennia: we had to quickly learn how to categorize stimuli into “safe” and “not safe,” so we could, you know, act quickly and not get eaten by bears or stomped on by wooly mammoths.
So what can help us increase our capacity for feeling safe – and also for helping others feel safe?
There are many routes to do this. Just being aware of our own hyperaroused alarm system is a step. I would add in cultivating qualities of curiosity, compassion, empathy, and openness.
For me, spirituality helps inform the approach to the “other.” In non-dualistic ways of being (which I would describe, in part, as the place God dwells), the distinction between “self” and “other” is a false dichotomy. We are somehow deeply interconnected even with those who feel like enemies. Yes, that means I’m even connected with Trump. My ego may throw a little fit about that and my surface-level skin might crawl, but the deeper part of me has compassion for the both of us because we’re just human, trying to get by. Our wounds are different. He has a little more power (in the traditional sense) than I do. He has more of a temper than I do. But a belief I hold is that we are both image-bearers of the divine, muddled as that image may be.
Perhaps one of the hardest tasks of spirituality is navigating the path between the contemplative knowledge that we are all connected and everything is, ultimately, okay — with the reality that we are in a world where real-life issues need to be addressed, people’s rights need to be protected, where the poor, broken, and wounded receive real-life healing. I’m not saying I have the answers. But I believe we need both parts to be fully human. Hating the perpetrator while tending to the victims does not actually bring about the beloved community.
These are hard words to swallow. I write them and I want to believe them, but it is so difficult to live into. But if we can, we find the alarm system is suddenly a relic. We don’t have to hate and be alarmed by the other. And then, maybe then, will our world start to become the place we so desperately need it to be.