I have a confession to make: I am an “ist”, specifically a sexist. Yes, that’s right, a sexist. I’ve got this issue with men, white men who drive pick up trucks and act as if they own the road. They most always have a smirk on their face. I’d like to be able and say that they always drive Ram’s who rev their super charged hemi engines behind me, inching closer and closer, but they could be in Chevy Silverado’s, or F150’s. Seldom are they in any of the foreign made models. They seem to delight in harassing me as I drive peacefully down the highway and, as I look in my rear view mirror, it is often filled with the blinding reflection of their grill work. When they get an opening, they speed around me and seem to cut back in way too close. My blood begins to boil: I plot ways to seek revenge. I begin to understand how road rage happens.
I am not proud of my “ism”. If fact, I try and hide it the best I can. Even my (white) husband doesn’t know. None of my friends know. I have never confessed it to a priest. But it has been with me for so many years, buried away until another incident happens. Then I am obsessed by it.
What is an “ism” anyway?
One definition is that “isms all involve a negative prejudgement whose purpose is to maintain control and power” (Suzanne Pharr). My definition is this: anything that resides in the deep dark recesses of our psyche that jumps out like a boogeyman when we meet someone who reminds us of some hurt, or pain, or shame, or any of those instances when we felt dis-empowered and shut down by fear. These aren’t necessarily huge traumas like witnessing a murder or being mugged, though they can be. These can be everyday events: Dad at the dinner table speaking loudly, offensively, about black people, his tone of voice reminding you of how much it can hurt when daddy is angry, while mom sits there studying her dinner, remarking about how lovely it is to have fresh beans again. Or a bully who has “befriended” you and one of his “fun” things to do is to pick on the little girls in the class. You are pressured to go along with it because you fear being his next target, and, well, he is your friend. For me, I can see the shadows of my father and his friends, men who drove trucks, who loved to work on trucks. I hear their voices mocking anyone who was not like them; women, blacks, democrats, intellectuals, Jews, the Polish. I hear my father laughing and adding his own comments. I see myself standing there knowing I fit in to at least three of these categories. I am too afraid to speak up or cry.
Here, in the shadows, lie the first woundings. These are piercings to the soul, to the center of our core spirit. It has little to do with men and trucks, or dad’s loudness; it has everything to do with a loss of faith and trust in those whom we have a special relationship. These wounds can be catastrophic…
Often we bury these wounds, especially if we feel there is no one who will listen or believe us. In the shadows, these grow and fester. They erupt unexpectedly, uncontrolled, triggered by some piece of memory that has surfaced into our present day like a answer from a shaken Magic 8 ball except we have no idea what the question was. We, and those around us are stunned by our behavior and we do our best to re-frame it in a way that seems acceptable. We look for support from others, from the media, anywhere we can feel justified in our laying blame. All we are really doing is feeding the wound.
The events that took place this week in Las Vegas has brought this to the forefront for me again. What causes us, some who are normally spiritually mindful, caring people, to become racists, sexists, ageists, or any of the multitude of “ists”? And if we came to understand the causes of these within ourselves, would it make a difference in the world?
Yes, I believe it would….
What are the causes? I believe all prejudices are rooted in three things; Lack of knowledge, personal pain, and avarice. For some, it is difficult to admit they do not know or understand. No one wants to be called an idiot. And that word, idiot, brings me to the second root of prejudice, personal pain.
Personal pain, as I said before, is often caused by trauma which generates shame, fear, and anger. We are left feeling powerless. These are ugly feelings for sure, buried deep within us, and, when reminded by some trigger, they can get projected uncontrollably out into the world. We now become the perpetrator. I once knew a person who, having had a rough childhood in post war England, had shared with me that he only saw two ways to be; a user or someone who is used. He chose the former. He was a con artist, a manipulator and a thief. He thrived on taking from others to fill a void within himself. Our wounds can harden us in ways unimaginable. We disconnect from our soul. We disavow our compassion. We objectify the world around us. We become obsessed with self.
Avarice has become a plague in the Western world. We are bombarded with ads that essentially say, “You are not….pretty enough, thin enough, smart enough, stylish enough, own enough. It is a form of brainwashing that begins when we are toddlers trying to focus our senses on the world around us. By the time we enter school we are doomed. And the more we are indoctrinated this emptiness of alienation becomes a pit in our stomach that refuses to ever be sated. We become envious of others who we are convinced have some sort of advantage over us. We covet. We fill our lives with stuff, hoping the next guy is impressed, but not so jealous that he wants “our stuff”, because we know in our hearts, we have thought about taking his. And so the cycle begins.
There is a way out of all of this…
All powerful emotions offer the opportunity for catharsis. This catharsis can come as a form of spiritual renewal and reconciliation, acting like a red flag waving in front of our moral compass, saying, “There’s something not right going on inside of you, pay attention!” If we catch ourselves before we speak or act, an opportunity to heal can take place. If we choose to remain blind to the source of our emotion, it can explode out in acts of hatred and violence. This is why awareness and reconciliation with our past is so important. It might just prevent us from saying or doing something that will wound someone else, thus causing the cycle of prejudice to spin again.
Let me say this again…We are the source of prejudice when we choose to project our pain, ignorance and greed onto others through words and actions…
Heavy words, for sure. But I believe if we are to overcome the overwhelming feelings of powerlessness we feel every time we listen to the news of yet another shooting/bombing/act of discrimination, we need to look at how we may be contributing to it. We need to come to terms with our own inadequacies, own our pain and find healthy ways of reconciling them so we do not start the cycle again. We need to stand up for ourselves if we feel uncomfortable with what someone is doing; we need to support those who we see being mistreated, and we need to hold accountable those we repeatedly thrive on mistreatment of others. We need to take, as the 12 steps say, “a honest and thorough moral inventory of ourselves” and see where we may be caught in the grasp of an “ism” and make amends where needed.
The “isms” we hold are seldom based in absolutes. In my case, I know many white men, some of whom do drive trucks, who are kind, loving, thoughtful individuals who would help anyone in need. So many of them were there in Las Vegas, angels rushing toward danger, carrying the wounded to their trucks and taking them to hospitals. So many souls were healed by their actions. My eyes were opened. May you all have messages from angels in your life, and we all join in their angelic ranks….