Your Beautiful Backstory

When I lived in Morocco, I learned devotion meant cabbies would park on any curb to unfurl prayer mats as the adhan echoed through Tangier’s cobblestoned streets. I realized a prince rooming across the hall was merely another human being. I discovered being American entitled me to win astounding scores from my pre-calculus teacher, travel the country on a whim, join the headmaster for drinks following the school play, and break curfew.

IMG_5587I came to appreciate that people see the world through different eyes. History and personality and culture color these lenses through which we apprehend existence. At the time, I was an avid runner. I ran every day after class, exploring neighborhoods that sprawled over the Mediterranean coast, bringing pedestrians up short with my bare legs, doubly shocking them with an Arabic greeting – As-salamu alaykum (peace be upon you). Through old slums, down along the salty port, upward between walled estates of affluent Europeans – my running circuits expanded to cover the entire city.

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Photo: Tim McRae

For my edification or perhaps for my safety, one of the guards at the American School introduced me to a local runner, Muhammad. He spoke decent English and brought me to the Tangier’s outskirts, then the countryside beyond. We cut down dusty dirt tracks and surveyed arid farmland. Sometimes we tested our speed against each other, sprinting fast back to the campus gates and collapsing on a redolent green to stretch. On one foray into the hinterlands, we rounded a thicket and nearly plowed into a bearded old man clad in a white robe and sandals. Alarmed, he stumbled back and yelled at us as we sped past.

“What did he say?” I asked Muhammad, afraid that he was angry with us for trespassing.

“He asked what we are running from, who is chasing us.”

I laughed. Muhammad grinned. And we ran on.

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My friend Muhammad leads on the left during a 15K race beside the waterfront in Tangier, Morocco. Photo: Tim McRae

Six weeks later, I found myself massed behind the starting line of my first ever road race, a 15K. At the sound of a pistol, Muhammad and I and a hundred others set off for five flat laps around a circuit near the waterfront. Moroccans are famously fast runners. Moroccan Khalid Khannouchi held the marathon world record shortly after my time in Africa. I watched the top seeded runners dash away as if I languished in a slow-motion twilight zone. They blasted past me on the far side of the median. Still I pressed on to do my best. Muhammad and I battled for advantage. The field became ever more strung out. When I passed alone under the shadow of some palms, a spectator stepped out from the crowd and bellowed in English, face contorted with hostility: “You’re going to lose, American!”

I returned his glare and ran on.

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Photo: Tim McRae

The alarmed rural peasant, an aggrieved race spectator, this privileged American exchange student – our worlds illustrate only a fraction of the breadth of human experience. Reflecting on these circumstances (and many more), I see huge divergence between the ways we know reality. I must accept the fact that we will not see eye-to-eye on a vast range of topics. Even here in the small town of Moab, where our views should align more closely, the lenses through which we see differ considerably.

How does a second-generation Mexican American relate to our politics and culture? Compared to a recent arrival from a big city, what is a lifetime Moabite’s perspective on this changing landscape? How do religion, family, gender, and unique life experiences inform the way your neighbor or your colleague see the world?

It comes as no shock that misunderstanding and offense are so common – an emoticon misinterpreted, a statement taken out of context, a subtext real or imagined, a motive assumed, a backstory unknown. Too often a natural human negativity bias and this confusing world join together to throw suspicion and judgment out-of-hand over people and concepts unfamiliar to us. Nature and hard experience have taught us that it’s safer to be paranoid, to reject perspectives different than our own.

51MfVDOlEkL._SX338_BO1,204,203,200_As counterbalance, Don Miguel Ruiz’s book The Four Agreements hits upon some key ideas, in particular: 1) Don’t make assumptions. My assumption was wrong regarding that Moroccan farmer who seemed angry. Muhammad’s translation revealed that he was only confused by our sudden presence. 2) Take nothing personally. I was furious with that man who bellowed at me during the race. I was the target of his antipathy, but his anger reflected only his perspective. It wasn’t about me. It was about him. Ruiz says, “When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on theirs.”

I no longer need to travel to a far-flung place like Morocco to appreciate that our standpoints are different. Mine and Muhammad’s. Yours and mine. Our neighbor’s and colleague’s. Experience of the human condition keeps piling up and reiterating daily: I should assume nothing and remember there are many ways, unfathomable or lovely, to see existence. Let us debate ideas and keep ourselves safe, but let us also acknowledge the vast unknown, usually benign, and often beautiful backstory of our fellow human being.

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Originally appeared in The Moab Sun News, June 23, 2016.

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Reaching to the Other Side

I remember.

Hospital BedWhen I was eighteen years old, a car hit me as I biked across the island of Martha’s Vineyard. My skull shattered the Pathfinder’s windshield. After a fight with the paramedics, while being medivacked to Boston, I slipped into a coma. For days my family fretted while doctors warned them: “Beware when he wakes. If he wakes. This kind of brain trauma can change someone. Often the person will become more temperamental and cruel.”

Duly warned, my friends and family waited.

Many head injury victims experience memory problems, ranging from brief stints of blackout to long-term amnesia. I fell somewhere in between. My high school years had been largely erased, my working memory cut down to less than thirty seconds. Once I’d regained consciousness, I asked repeatedly, like a broken record, day after day: “Why am I in a hospital? Why am I in a hospital? Why am I in a hospital?”

Only after months of physical, occupational, and speech therapy was I able to return to a shadowy facsimile of my former existence.

But what’s the first thing I remember? What cut through the haze of my befuddled mind as I lay on a hospital bed? What reached me even in the darkness behind closed eyelids?

A hand in mine.

Hand in HandI remember that human contact as if it were the first experience of my life. Somebody was holding my hand, and I gave three squeezes, a coded message of words I cannot forget.

I. Love. You.

When the other stuff had been stripped away – memories and intellect, dreams and expectations – all that remained was a desire to connect with another human being. More visceral than my identity, more important than confusion, the need to offer love grounded my first experience as a human crawling onto the shores of his new life.

I offer this singular memory because it has helped me contextualize some of the stuff going on today.

I recently watched an interview with a social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, who tried to explain why the political climate of our age is so contentious. One of the main reasons he gave for the toxic status quo is our tribal tendency to demonize the other side. “Once you think [the other side] is evil, the ends justify the means… You can do anything because it’s in the service of fighting evil.”

Bill Moyers talked with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt at http://billmoyers.com/segment/jonathan-haidt-explains-our-contentious-culture/

Bill Moyers’ interview with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt: http://billmoyers.com/segment/jonathan-haidt-explains-our-contentious-culture/

Regardless of whether we’re Democrat or Republican, according to Haidt, this tribal bent pushes us to ignore or even hate the other side. It shuts down our ability to see any kind of positive motive behind the other’s actions. If he isn’t part of our group, he must be crazy or deluded. Haidt says, “When it gets to the mental state in which I am fighting for good and you are fighting for evil, it’s very difficult to compromise. Compromise becomes a dirty word.”

The crux of this age, then, might be withdrawing these severe judgments that ipso facto accompany our viewpoints.

In my small town, we’re lucky to enjoy an intimate setting that puts individuals of differing views in close proximity to one other – at our schools, in the supermarkets, on Main Street, and in the pages of our newspapers. It’s natural to appreciate diverse ideas from people we respect and meet on a daily basis, whereas on the Internet or in cities, it’s all too easy to seal ourselves in bubbles demonizing anybody from the opposite side.

Found here.

A good example of the irrational tribal mind. Found here.

I saw this interview with Mr. Haidt, and I had to take a step back from my own assumptions and prejudices. I began to notice all the user comments about “evil” following articles online. I started to rethink my own dismissal of the other side.

So now I try to remember a hand in mine when I was coming back to the world and what it told me. It said before judgments or requests, before politics and policy, we can offer generosity (and love) to the person at hand. They deserve it, and it’s the most important gesture I know.

As it happens, of course, nobody’s really trying to do the wrong thing or make poor decisions. The only way we’re going to win as a people, is if we agree to debate the public good without attributing nefarious intentions to honest, caring citizens. As we come out of this fog of outraged partisanship, here’s to three words on which I’ll hang my hat:

I. Love. You.

I love you America. I love you fellow American.

Never STOP Loving

(Original published in the Moab Sun News, 10/23/13)

An Argument for Turning Off the News

The amount of misery in the world remains strikingly steady over time. People around the world are maligned or even destroyed because of their religion, skin color, gender, size, sexual orientation.

What can the average person do about the overwhelming pain and strife riding with us through time? Yes, a special leader can step up and make substantial changes. Yes, we need to work together for a better society. But do we need to know about every atrocity, every crime, every time human depravity wells up from dark places?

Our media – sensationalist, rooted in human instinct, and efficient – broadcasts injustices over our shrinking planet for all to see. Nicholas Kristoff, my favorite columnist, travels the globe to report on humanitarian crises, human rights abuses by governments and nations, domestic crimes. Exposing vile circumstances helps us cap the quota of pain on Earth. But how much can you or I do about the fact of human suffering?

Though I disagree with Mother Teresa on some fine points (like women’s health and theism), I agree with her here:

“What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.”

– Mother Teresa

In fact, this post will be peppered with the sister’s jewels of wisdom, because she spoke robustly on the topic: ACT LOCALLY. We cannot save every little boy and girl from starving or suffering. We cannot prevent every rape. We cannot guarantee that every human brain is wired without glitches that might create sociopaths. But I can watch out for my friends. I can lend a struggling family a little support. We can embody upright values in our community.

Action

Sometimes I ask myself, how much of my life should involve the contemplation and absorption of foul narratives? Never before has so much information been so readily available. According to some calculations, we’re inundated by more than 174 newspaper’s worth of information every day. As pointed out in this article, a hundred years ago, an individual would have been lucky to read fifty books in a lifetime. Now news streams to us via telephone and TV and computer at ever faster speeds. Those innumerable horror stories aren’t a world away, they’re staring at us from a smart phone. That’s a good thing insofar as we can do something about it. But we can’t do something about everything. Mother Teresa knew it. She said, “If I look at the mass I will never act.”

We may receive the equivalent of 174 newspapers of information every day, but much of this news is bad news. And we are missing out on two things. First, we too often fail to see good news. Second, our local problems are overridden by more shocking developments that are not only out of our reach but unrelated to our lives. Meanwhile, that local youth program lost its funding. A homeless person froze to death in the slues last week. That neighbor kid went hungry all weekend until he could get back to school for state food.

A Hero in my House

My wife recently inspired me with her embodiment of Sister Teresa’s suggestion: “Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” You see, we work in a school district, matching at-risk youth with volunteer mentors who boost these kids’ self-confidence, social skill, and school attachment. Each day, Megan supports these matches that, as one mentee put it, gives kids “a reason to get up and go to school, and a reason to feel better at the end of the day.” Still, Megan identified one kid to whom she could give something extra. This kid had been truant 75% of the first month of school. He never exercised. He was bullied for his weight. He was depressed and lonely and without hope.

Megan started exercising with him, taking him on walks around the school. She began pumping him up with a mantra: Come to school every day – I can do it, I know the way.

She would start: Come to school every day. He would finish: I can do it, I know the way. Rain or shine, she’d walk laps with him. Busy or tired or stressed, she always made time.

John’s class was scheduled to go on a field trip today, a hike to Delicate Arch. It’s a mile and a half uphill climb to the most incredible vista in Arches National Park. A month before the hike, it became obvious; this field trip would defeat John. He hadn’t ever been on a hike up steep slickrock. He hadn’t walked even a mile before. Chances were good that he’d have to stop with an aide and wait for his class to come back down. He wasn’t going to make it.

Over the last four weeks, Megan upped the length of their daily walks. She started talking him through visualizations of what the trail would be like, the terrain, the rock formations, his progress. They found games to pick up his pace, chasing each other’s shadows, playing tag, letting other kids join in, asking a friend to bring her dog for a walk. John loved Maya, and that happy dog pulled him by her leash, running through campus and over to the church lawn and across the nearby park, leading the panting kid toward better health.

Field Trip

The big class trip. Megan and John left early in our car, to get a head start. Megan talked with John about pacing, and she agreed to carry along his golden Pokémon card so he could hold it during their breaks. Half way up the big hill, John and Megan watched the bus pull into the parking lot below, the kids stream out into the morning sunlight. John climbed to his feet and started going again, remembering from their visualization exercises, “We’re more than half way. Soon there will be a ramp of slanting rock.”

They took a few more breaks. They carefully navigated an exposed ledge. Megan watched John’s face as they rounded the last bend and got a look at the iconic vision of Utah, the most spectacular rock feature of the West. John stopped. “Oh, WOW!” He didn’t think it would be so big. He didn’t realize he’d be so close. Visualization hadn’t captured the improbability of this rock formation.

John, left, enjoying the view of Delicate Arch, Arches National Park.

A little while later, his class showed up, kids panting. “Wow!” a girl exclaimed. “How did you get up here so fast, John?” He just beamed, the happiest kid on Earth.

A Cup of Light

John hasn’t missed a day of school in months. His mom reports, “This is the happiest I’ve ever seen him.” His grades are up. He’s gaining more friends in his class. A few days ago, John said, “School is better now, because Megan walks with me every day.”

Where will the average, extraordinary person do the most good? Locally.

I vow to read a little less bad news. I vow to be more like my wife. I vow to live more like Mother Teresa:

“Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.”

Honoring What We Eat

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In spite of my fondness for the Jason Bourne movies, I am a gentle person, averse to violence and like most people, ill at ease when faced with suffering. I don’t want to see an animal die. Yet I’m an … Continue reading