Wednesday, May 4, 2011

What We Don't Want To Know

I’ve been cringing all week, but not for the reasons you might think. It’s true that the Canadian election is not in alignment with my personal preferences, and I felt great sadness watching the public celebrations of Osama bin Laden’s death. (I cannot celebrate another human being's death even when that human being has orchestrated violence and caused great suffering.) But my cringing was less about these events than it was about some of the reactions they provoked: some Canadians calling others “idiots” for how they voted; people expressing their disgust with those who were celebrating in the streets, calling them “the lowest common denominator” or worse.

After 9/11 I wrote a piece about not dividing humanity, even in our own minds, into “us” and “them.” (It’s posted on my website at if you’d like to read it.) Separating ourselves from those who do what we find objectionable or abhorrent is easy, but it sets us up for inner and outer war and denies the shadow aspects of self we'd rather not know.

I’m as tempted as anyone to ask- what were “they” thinking when “they” voted for the Conservatives or danced in the streets chanting “USA, USA!” But, if I really want to know what my fellow human beings are thinking and feeling, I have to ask and listen. And then, if I really want to be the change I'd like to see in the world, I have to consider where a similar sentiment, motivation or perspective might live within myself.

My original article suggested starting simply with a change in language, saying (even in our minds) "some of us" instead of “they.” Some of us celebrated the death of Osama bin Laden by dancing in the streets. Immediately, my response is diverted from mind and heart-closing judgments to asking, “Why?” One of the women interviewed at the celebration at ground zero in New York said that her husband had died on 9/11 and she felt for the first time that she might be able to go on with her life now. I said a prayer for her, that she be able to do just that.

So. . . . . some of us have been so devastated by the losses of 9/11 that going on with life feels impossible without some form or revenge or justice, without the death of the person believed to be the cause of that loss.

I honestly don’t know if bin Laden's death will bring closure for some, but I find it useful to take my contemplation one step further: Where does part of me feel so devastated by a loss that I want revenge, or justice, or some form of loss to be felt by someone I believe/feel was instrumental in causing my loss? Last year my marriage ended. Can I deny that this feeling- however small, intermittent and misguided (I do not think my ex’s suffering would bring me fresh hope or a sense of celebration) lives within me in response to hurt, betrayal and loss? It’s not the only feeling I have, (as I'm guessing that hope for moving on was not the only feeling the woman who was interviewed was experiencing) and I choose not to act on it. But this choice is only possible in part because I am conscious of the feeling. If I deny this feeling and it goes into the unconscious, it is much more likely that I will seek revenge in unconscious ways.

I am not equating terrorist acts of violence with marital betrayal, and I do think it's useful to be able to discern between different degrees of doing harm to others. But, at the same time, if I am interested in self-awareness and deeper inter-personal communication, I need to look honestly at where the qualities I abhor in the other might live in me.

And I can use this same method of contemplation to understand why some voted differently than myself. When I ask my neighbour why she voted for Harper, she tells me that she is afraid of what would happen to her small pension if the economy falters, and she believes the stock market and other financial institutions will respond best to a Conservative government. She also says that she does not like the positions the Conservatives have on the environment or women’s issues but thinks this is just the price that has to be paid for economic survival.

I disagree with her assessment, but I listen and consider: What part of me, when afraid for (and rightly or wrongly assessing the chances of) my survival becomes willing to compromise other values I say I hold dear?

This is not about agreeing with others' actions. This is about not separating ourselves from our fellow human beings, not making them something less than human, not pretending that what we think we see in them, does not or could not live in us.

And I can use this method to reflect on the cringing I did at the derisive comments about Canadian voters or people celebrating Osama's death. The folks making these comments are no more “them”(vs. us/me) than those they were condemning. So, what part of me- when frightened by decisions others make that have potential unwanted consequences for my life- condemns, dismisses, derides and judges others in an attempt to separate myself from “them”?

You get the idea- it's not about failing to discern right action for ourselves, it's just about recognizing that there simply is no “them” and “us.” What lives in another, lives in me. And if I want to have real choice about how I act on all that lives within me- love, fear, generosity, courage, cowardice, judgement, acceptance- I have to be willing to be with as much of it as I can, to bring it to consciousness. The process is always enlightening and humbling, and in this task, others- particularly those with whom I do not identify, those from whom I want to separate myself- can be my greatest teachers facilitating self-knowledge and awareness. And for this, I am grateful.


  1. I'm holding out for a "one-state-solution: Love!"

    The sun will stand as our best man
    And whistle

    When we have found the courage
    To marry forgiveness,

    When we have found the courage
    To marry

    Thank-you Oriah

  2. So eloquently said in handling a big and difficult topic. Thanks for these words. I referred someone today to this posting in hopes that it will help in their own inter-personal predicament. It's a tough concept to wrestle with and all words that help us understand the connectedness of "us" are valuable. Blessings to you

  3. Apparently there have been some problems with comments coming through on this week's blog. Please know that I do monitor comments but to date have never not okay'd one. If you try to put up a comment and it does not seem to work I would appreciate you letting me know at Thanks- will see if I can find out what the probllem is.

  4. We are all one and we are all suffering together even if we don't all know this to be true. Blessing to you, Oriah

  5. Well, I agree that we cannot pretend not to have a shadow self. Maybe if Jungian psy was taught as a possible worldview at schools, people would be more aware of this aspect of themselves.

    I like your book "the call", by the way.

    However... what does this mean in practice ? it's all very well saying we are all one - yes ultimately we are, in Heaven. However on this world, there are genocidal maniacs such as Hitler, Stalin , Al quadea and affiliates who would wipe out thousands or millions of people without blinking. So what are we to do ? And I don't subscribe to the point of view that we, european western civilization are to blame for homicidal maniacs such as al-quadea. Their motive is self-directed: hatred of modern religiously diverse civilization - its no coincidence they chose the WTC which had 100 nationalities or so, and all religions .

    does this mean we should not capture and imprison murderers, because we have sometimes felt like killing someone ? controlled violence is surely needed to control the worst elements of society. One can still feel some compassion for them. But compassion for their victims must surely make us take action ?

    Does this mean we should not hunt down and kill or capture terrorists who deliberately kill large numbers of civilians from NY to MAdrid to BAli to Beslan (secondary school) ?

    What would you have done in practice ? good intentions are not enough in this world, we must act with the knowledge we have, even though we are imperfect ourselves. Islamic terrorism has to be the most demonic cult that I can think of. ... they cut off the heads of people and take videos... how demonic can you get ?

    if you were taken hostage , along with kids by this lot, do you really think you could convince them to liberate you all by talking to them ? Their motive seems pretty clearly to be hatred of the modern world and a desire to impose a medieval caliphate worldwide. And also a crazed love of death (suicide bombers etc). Or would you want to be rescued by highly trained men (mostly) with guns ?

    Love your enemies and understand how you could become one of them ... but fight them anyway - in yourself, and in those who have chosen to fight for evil organizations such as al-quadea. I guess that's what I beleive, in summary.

  6. Jules, no where in this piece (or anywhere else in my life) have I said, "We are all one." We aren't. We are individuals participating in a shared and sacred wholeness with a great deal in common. Nor do I say anything about not opposing destructive acts or people. What I find interesting is that many think we can only say NO in word and deed to stop unjust acts IF we separate ourselves from those committing those acts, making them less than human and hiding from ourselves that we too have similar capacities within ourselves. Gandhi did not hedge on British violence or rule in his country- he opposed it without condition. But he did so without separating himself from those who were involved, by never denying their humanity nor ignoring his own internal capacity for violence and injustice. That is the challenge- to oppose wrong actions without making the other less than human as we ourselves are human.

  7. Thanks for revisiting and applying your insights into "us and them" to more current events. I am often very resistant to acknowledging any association with "thems", and yet doing so offers a sometimes painful reminder of my own human nature.

    I was listening to part of an KUOW interview with Joe Palca, author of "Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us". I increasingly find that the things that annoy me about "thems" are the things that annoy me most about myself. I believe the technique you teach here (and elsewhere) can be a useful antidote to annoyance.

  8. What you say speaks very much to my condition. I sense quite often the interconnectedness of all of life, so I resonate with the idea that there is no 'them' and 'us'. As others have commented, it's not easy to work out how to live this out in a practical way, but isn't it more an attitude of mind than a statement about what we should or should not do?
    John Donne's lines are still so relevant:
    'Every man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind. Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee'.