Please welcome today’s guest writer, Jerel Domer (‘12). Jerel lives in Grand Rapids and is pursuing an MA in English Lit while working as a psychiatric technician at Pine Rest Mental Health Services. He recently taught English as a Second Language in South Korea for a year, and before that worked for a local publishing group in Grand Rapids. In his free time he enjoys drinking green tea and watching documentaries on Netflix.
Nothing happens in a vacuum. Everything has a context, a unique mixture of events and entities that surround it, a mold in which it takes shape. Like everything else, people are molded by their contexts in the same way the earth itself was formed by that which surrounded it. Sponges, we absorb our surroundings. Mirrors, we reflect them. What goes into something in one way or another comes out of it. The universe itself is an infinitely complex dance of interlaced events, an inconceivable interplay between co-dependent and co-productive phenomena that dance together to form one great piece of art, one story.
People are icebergs and life is the ocean in which we float. When we walk down the street or through the grocery, when we sit in the café or in the public house, when we watch the news, we think we see other people. What we really see are only the summits of other submerged mountains.
It’s easy to look at things, particularly people, and ask what without asking the more difficult why. But we humans are formed by our contexts, our specific places in time and space, and if we understand our fellow humans’ contexts, we understand our fellow humans. This is central to seeking harmony with our brothers and sisters in the world. And it’s not an easy thing to do, as amply evidenced by history. People that are different from us are often difficult to understand, and it takes more than a figurative (or literal) glance. It takes an act of will.
We consciously or subconsciously analyze those whom we recognize, either immediately or after some time, as being fundamentally different from us in behavior, appearance, views, or background. We form an impression of what a person is like and often stop there, neglecting to ask further questions: Why might this person be like this? What events and circumstances may have molded them in this way? What might they have seen and felt and heard and learned in their vast, submerged history? Although we might never know, simply asking ourselves these questions is an important step towards seeking greater understanding of and harmony with the other. Simply asking ourselves these questions changes our perspectives and our attitudes, making us more open to those who are different.
Upon encountering someone different we make judgments on what we see without regard to what we don’t see, which is often the greater portion. There are two kinds of people: people that we understand, and people we don’t. The people we understand are usually people that are similar to us in more ways than they are different. We understand these people, our friends and families, because we have been privileged to see more of the submerged mountain.
When we don’t understand someone it’s because we are only seeing a small fraction of her or him. We often make decisions and judgments accordingly. But what if we, when interacting with those we didn’t understand, moved from the emotional and reactive what to the intellectual and responsive why and endeavored to discover more of what lies beneath the surface before making our decisions and our judgments?
I’m not advocating complete tolerance. I’m not advocating tolerance of people whose behavior blatantly violates the rights or freedoms or wellbeing of others (although I think that even these people can at least be understood). But everyone has a story. And people, by extension their stories, are formed by their contexts.
If, for example, a person is born into a relatively comfortable middle class life with financially and emotionally stable and affectionate parents, they’re going to have a certain kind of story. If another person is born into an impoverished and crime-ridden inner city neighborhood with emotionally unstable or substance-abusing parents they are going to have a different kind of story. The extra layer of substance-abusing parents has its own context, and I can imagine the temptation to make the oversimplification that they are “bad people” who are making a “bad choice” for which their children will have to pay the price.
The reason why people stop at what instead of asking why of the other is our tendency to oversimplify things, often out of sheer intellectual and moral laziness. Taking the case of the substance-abusing parent, it’s easier to stop at the assumption that they are bad people consciously making a bad decision. It’s a nice, uncomplicated, satisfying answer. But it would be more intellectually and morally responsible to do a little more work and ask things like: why do they abuse substances? What have their lives been like? What events and circumstances led them to the needle or the bottle or the pill? Do I really believe that when they were children and people asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up, they said, “A junky”?
As the cleverest animal, we humans don’t like it when we don’t understand something (life, death, tax forms, etc.). The inability to understand people who are different from ourselves makes us at first indifferent, then exclusive, and in the end full of hatred. Understanding, which comes by the will to discover what lies beneath the surface, produces empathy, compassion and love. This is hardly a novel concept but it strikes me as being worth reiterating in these times of great ideological division. It is important when we look at people who are different from us to consider not just what we see but also what we don’t see. It is important to ask ourselves of others: why?