It seems that now more than ever, we’re living in the era of “us vs. them,” primed to think of others — especially those who are different or who disagree with us — as separate from and alien to us, as “other.”
We are born into communities of race, language, ethnicity, state/country/region, gender, religion…the list goes on. It is powerful to reflect upon where we anchor our sense of belonging, and whether that has largely been imposed upon us by stories others tell about us or is something we ourselves utilize for courage and self-respect. And it is powerful to look at where security fits into this reflection and risk-taking, willingness, or interest in stretching the boundaries of our identifications.
If we look at ourselves through the lens of various outward and social categories, we can also look at intersectionality and the multifaceted lives we each deal with every day. The Buddha said, “Within this fathom long body, lies the entire universe.” I certainly resonate with that statement as I look at my own life — one made up of both privilege and vulnerabilities, manifold gifts and terrible losses — my life has encompassed so much, and every aspect of my experience plays a part in who I know myself to be. This is a doorway to a truth of belonging to a bigger picture of life that doesn’t come from or fit on any single label, though each can be recognized.
Without this larger picture of life, we often tumble into the loneliness that our society so readily fosters. There are currently 42.6 million Americans over the age of 45 who report suffering from loneliness, a situation that’s verging on a health epidemic. Consumer culture is part of the cause, for we are inundated with messages that not only should we want more things — better things — but also that we need them and that what we have is who we are. As we are learning, brands are literally designing their products to require replacement and to fuel revenue. We have been tricked by advertising to think things can bring us happiness, that our homes need to look a certain way or have certain décor for us to be worthy. So instead of connecting on a personal level, we form our most meaningful connections with screens and numbers that represent our worth.
Children aren’t immune to this suffering, either. According to a November 2017 study, children who have more toys have a lesser quality of play, are less creative, and more distracted (cue ADD). Millennials are raised to nourish virtual “friendships” on social media with people they never talk to — or with whom, when they do get together in person, they are hooked to their phones the whole time. The very nature of friendship has changed from one of connection to one of transaction.
Yet at the same time, none of this is new. Thinking of our world and immediate surroundings in terms of “me vs. you” or “us vs. them” isn’t unique to any particular political or cultural context. It’s evolutionary, as well as a byproduct of powerful and ongoing conditioning. As kids, we’re raised in an individualistic culture that teaches us to think of survival as triumphing over others because “there’s not enough to go around.” We often even think of our own pain and suffering as “other” — something to repress or turn away from. And ironically, we often end up feeling further alienated, compartmentalized, and disconnected as a result.
We have the chance, though, to step beyond the strictures of habit and see ourselves as fundamentally interdependent with all beings. This takes time, and intentionality brings us back to conditioning. A major reason for this is that we’re often conditioned to see kindness as a soft virtue, rather than as a powerful force.
I think back to when I published my first book, Lovingkindness, in 1995. I remember feeling a deep sense of worry that people would misjudge the book as being “sweet” or “sentimental,” because those are definitely qualities we associate with words like “loving” and “kindness.” But in reality, the practice of loving-kindness is about cultivating love as a strength, a muscle, a tool that challenges our tendency to see people (including ourselves) as disconnected, statically and rigidly isolated from one another. Loving-kindness is about opening ourselves up to others with compassion and equanimity, which is a challenging exercise, requiring us to push back against assumptions, prejudices, and labels that most of us have internalized. That’s why I’ve been teaching loving-kindness for all of these years.
A study examined in a New York Times article from 2008 entitled “Tolerance Over Race Can Spread” showed that mutual trust can catch on and spread between racial groups just as quickly as suspicion can. How amazing to think that our minds can become conditioned to trust others as much as they have been to veer toward hatred.
As scientist Emma Seppala puts it, our valuing of experience, especially shared experience with nourishing people, has been lost; we’ve forgotten the simple fact that “altruistic acts, in addition to making this world a better place for those you serve, also lead to the greatest levels of fulfillment. Not just for yourself but observers are inspired. They, in turn, are more likely to help others.” This becomes a virtuous cycle that helps remake our own lives and truly can affect the world.