Proximity Leads to Understanding

Monday, July 13, 2015 - 5:25 am

Proximity Leads to Understanding

As soon as the movie, Milk, came out in 2008, I went to see it. The movie is a biographical depiction of the life of Harvey Milk, who in 1977 became the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States. He ran for the Board of Supervisors three times before being elected in 1977.

There is a scene in the movie I’ve never forgotten, and which I’ve been reflecting on a lot lately. In the scene, Harvey Milk makes an appeal to closeted gays to come out to their families, friends, and co-workers so the straight world might stop demonizing an abstract idea. He hands the phone to someone who looks terribly frightened, but goes and makes the call. I think of that moment every time there is an advance in justice for people in the LGBTIQ community, such as the recent Supreme Court decision on marriage equality.

Harvey Milk stands in front of his Castro Street camera store, circa 1977. (Dan Monk / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).)

So many people braved their fears and just said, “This is who I am,” because of the prescience of Harvey Milk’s vision, and it has gotten harder and harder to pretend that gay people are completely apart from “us.”

Stranger #51, from the photographer’s series, 100 Strangers. Thierry is a freelance engineer in biotechnology. He helps companies in managing projects from conception to completion in a very specific area. (Antoine Robiez / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

It is one thing, after all, to create and then demonize an “other” out of nothing: no connection, no relationship, no knowledge of someone’s hopes and fears, their dreams and their sorrows. It is quite another thing if the world is attempting to create an “other” out of and then demonize Uncle Joe, cousin Jill, your neighbor, your son, your daughter.

Stranger #64 (Élodie), from the photographer’s series, 100 Strangers. (Antoine Robiez / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

We can be strongly conditioned, in the abstract, to think of others in terms of stereotypes. The use of stereotypes may be an evolutionary survival strategy for us to make sense of an immeasurably chaotic world, but it is also a cultural habit that creates psychological distance for each and every one of us. Thinking in rigid categories of projection locks us into a dynamic of seeing the world in terms of Us-versus-Them.

Stranger #75 (Sergei), from the photographer’s series, 100 Strangers. (Antoine Robiez / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0). )

This sense of division, isolation, and separateness from others that we tend to take as fact is actually bred by our minds. With habitual ways of thinking, we create the fiction of being completely separate from anyone seen as different. That disconnect may provide a superficial sense of control, but we ultimately make ourselves more and more isolated. As a result, we find ourselves increasingly objectifying particular individuals or entire groups of people — either through antipathy, through prejudice, or even just through indifference.

We start living in a world of mental projections, a world without substance, without dimensionality. When there is no substance, when there are only shadows and ghosts born from our minds, there is no sense of real connection. When there is no dimensionality, there is no chance for real understanding.

Stranger #21 (Inconnue), from the photographer’s series, 100 Strangers. (Antoine Robiez / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

Our society also perpetuates a dualistic worldview of who is like us and who isn’t. Not only does seeing the world in these terms keep us at arms length from other people, it also places our own sense of who we are in a box. We then feel a tighter grip on our habitual assumptions that tend to inform the way we act and define ourselves. Instead, we can learn to gain insight into our fundamental connectedness, and liberate ourselves from the impulse to only understand the world in terms of boundaries and labels.

It turns out that proximity leads to understanding.

Stranger #67 (Jacque), from the photographer’s series, 100 Strangers. (Antoine Robiez / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

According to a recent study, longer-term interpersonal contact between hostile groups counteracts biases by letting people get to know one another as individuals, rather than as parts of a group. Thomas F. Pettigrew, a research professor of social psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, analyzed more than 500 studies on intergroup contact. In this research, he found that even in areas where ethnic groups were in conflict and viewed one another through lenses of negative stereotypes, individuals who had close friends within the other group exhibited little or no such prejudice. They seemed to realize the many ways those formerly demonized “others” were “just like me.”

And we can simulate that proximity internally by truly considering another person.

Stranger #47 (Vicky), from the photographer’s series, 100 Strangers. (Antoine Robiez / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

This is a beautiful reflective exercise I learned from my friend and colleague, Mirabai Bush.

Just Like Me
You can do this practice by bringing someone to mind or it can be done silently when meeting someone new. You can use any of these phrases, or any others that seem more appropriate.

The Instructions:
Bring someone to mind, a fellow human being, just like you. Now silently repeat any number of these phrases, while thinking of them.

This person has a body and a mind, just like me.
This person has feelings, emotions and thoughts, just like me.
This person has in his or her life, experienced physical and emotional pain and suffering, just like me.
This person has at some point been sad, disappointed, angry, or hurt, just like me.
This person has felt unworthy or inadequate, just like me.
This person worries and is frightened sometimes, just like me.
This person has longed for friendship, just like me.
This person is learning about life, just like me.
This person wants to be caring and kind to others, just like me.
This person wants to be content with what life has given, just like me.
This person wishes to be free from pain and suffering, just like me.
This person wishes to be safe and healthy, just like me.
This person wishes to be happy, just like me.
This person wishes to be loved, just like me.

Now, allow some wishes for well-being to arise:
I wish that this person have the strength, resources, and social support to navigate the difficulties in life with ease.
I wish that this person be free from pain and suffering.
I wish that this person be peaceful and happy.
I wish that this person be loved.
Because this person is a fellow human being, just like me.

Try it with a friend, a family member, a colleague. Then try it with someone you have somehow never at all considered to be…just like you.

Stranger #56 (Jef), from the photographer’s series, 100 Strangers. (Antoine Robiez / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears monthly.
She is a meditation teacher and the cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. She is the author of many books, including Love Your Enemies, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, and Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace.

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