Lifestyle

Weaver: The danger of making assumptions and stereotyping people

One sweltering afternoon, Joe was driving down a lonely country road when a tire went flat.

He looked in the trunk for his jack, but it wasn’t there.

Unhappily, he started trudging down the road towards a farm house several miles back, hoping to borrow a jack, and maybe get a lift back to his car.

As he walked, he muttered anxiously, “I hope they have a jack.  But what if they won’t lend it to a stranger? I bet they won’t. Then what will I do?”

By the time he reached the house he had worked himself into such a state that when the farmer came to the door he snarled, “You can keep your bloody jack—see if I care!”

This story brings home the danger of making assumptions.

Unexamined assumptions are a primary cause of human conflict.

Some are generalized stereotypes: “He is one of those people—he must be…” Others are projections of our past experiences or insecurities: “She isn’t smiling; she must not approve of me.”

Sometimes assumptions are codified in narrow, culturally-shaped “religious” rules, although the great religious teachers were almost universally known for breaking out of stereotypes and culturally blinkered assumptions about others.

In my faith community, we have a relationship covenant that includes “most respectful interpretation” (“MRI” for short).

It seems to be the hardest guideline to practice.

We habitually make assumptions about one another.

So it is a spiritual discipline to step back from our assumptions and to check them out.

We ask ourselves: “Is my idea of the way things are an observation of what is actually happening here and now, an interpretation from what I observe, or an assumption that may not be valid given how little I know about this person or situation? Am I confusing this with past experiences? Has something triggered my own insecurities, fears of rejection, sense of being different, imperfect, unacceptable? Or has this person simply had a bad day, and it has nothing to do with me?”

Approaching our interactions with an attitude of respectful curiosity means we can be more observant and fully present in this real situation.

Our human freedom lies in that space between reactive feelings and response—we have little freedom if we live our lives in a kneejerk fashion.

Spiritual traditions encourage us to look deeper, with a proactive commitment to compassion and acceptance of others.

They are meant to be liberating, not constricting.  Cultural attitudes often put folks who are different into boxes with labels.

But Jesus of Nazareth and the Buddha, Muhammad and Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama and Lao Tzi and so many other wise spiritual leaders challenge us to get beyond boxes and fears about the “stranger.”

Jesus, according to tradition, claimed: “I was a stranger, and you took me in.” Such actions are the true measure of a religious person.

During the recent Gay Pride march, I thought about this difficult challenge of getting beyond boxes and assumptions—it is easy to make assumptions about people who are different.

My tradition has a saying: “We need not think alike to love alike.”

A friend that morning suggested it is also true that we need not “love alike” to think alike.

I have learned so much from those who think or love differently than I do.

It is a matter of justice and compassion that we work for inclusion and celebrate diversity.

It also means challenging our assumptions, deepening our humanity and enriching our lives with the wisdom many diverse voices bring into our communities.

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