Have you ever felt uncomfortable with someone because they were different than you? Maybe they had a different ethnic background or skin color, or maybe they were “book smart” while you are more “street smart”. Maybe they dressed differently than you do, or maybe you were just repulsed by them and you’re not sure why.
I had a disturbing experience this week, in which a person was publicly ridiculing me for my spiritual beliefs. I can’t lie, it stung. We all want to be liked and accepted, and it hurts when we are rejected. I didn’t even know this person, he just took exception to me because I was different than he was. He didn’t give me a chance and try to find out if I was someone he might like to know. He assumed I was not acceptable because of one thing about me that didn’t sit well with him.
Maybe you’ve had a similar experience? Have you been rejected by someone because of your religious beliefs, skin color, body size, ethnic background or some other reason? It doesn’t feel good, does it? Over time, such experiences can make us question our own self-worth. What is really happening when a person is intolerant of another? I believe there are two dynamics playing out beneath the surface.
First, fear of the unknown. If we have no personal experience with people of different cultures, religions and societal “classes”, we are usually laboring under stereotypes. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines stereotype as, “a fixed or conventional notion or conception”. In other words, we have been taught to believe certain things about certain types of people. If you saw a muscular man in a deerskin loincloth carrying a spear and wearing colored paint on his face, what would you think? Savage, right? If you were to encounter him while traipsing through the jungle, you would likely feel very fearful, and wonder if he meant you harm. For all you know, he might be the doctor or religious leader of his village. If you encountered him on the streets of New York City, you’d probably think that he had escaped from a mental institution. Not because he is acting insane, but because he appears different than everyone else. We fear what we do not know or understand.
Another reason we fear people who are different is because we often feel threatened by them. If someone’s religious beliefs are right, then ours must be wrong. If a particular manner of dress becomes popular and we don’t follow along, we are ridiculed and considered to be behind the times. We must drive the right car, buy all the latest electronic gadgets, and move within the right social circles. This is called “Competitive Thinking”. In order for us to be right, someone else must be wrong. In order for us to be accepted, we must reject those who are different than we are.
This type of thinking usually stems from feelings of insecurity. When we feel insecure about ourselves (or aspects of ourselves), we often try to act over-confident, to hide that insecurity from others. In our competitive society, showing weakness of any kind can be the kiss of death. We often feel the need to tear others down, to build ourselves up. We can then look like the “winner”. But do we really win in a situation like that? By tearing someone down in order to build yourself up, you only succeed in diminishing your own image. Most people will not see you as a Winner, but as a Bully. They may not verbalize it (otherwise you might turn your anger on them!), but they will be thinking it. That is not self-confidence, but arrogance.
A person who is truly self-confident feels no need to tear others down or ridicule or reject others. Rather, they seek to build others up, because they know that by doing so they build themselves up. A self-confident person is not threatened by someone who is different. They are interested in getting to know someone who is different. They see value in learning from others, and sharing with others.
No matter how different we appear to be from each other, we have alot more in common than we think. I have said many times that we are all connected on a spiritual level, and I truly believe that. You may have seen glimpses of that from time to time in your own life. Have you ever made eye contact with someone you didn’t know, and exchanged a genuine smile with them? It may be in a crowded elevator or at a large gathering, or even on the street. For one split second, you are Friends with that person, even if you have never spoken to them. There is an exchange of energy taking place, and you recognize the God within them, as they also recognize the God within you. On a more physical level, we are also very much alike in the sense that we all want to be loved and accepted. We all want to provide security and safety for our families. We all want to live productive, happy lives. At our core, we are more alike than we are different.
Strive to focus on those things that we all have in common. No matter how different someone appears to be, try to recognize the things that make them similar. And honor those things that do make them different. Diversity is a wonderful thing. How incredibly boring this world would be if we were all exactly alike.
I leave you with a popular Sanskrit word ~ Namaste ~ (pronounced nah-mah-STAY), which means “the Divine in me recognizes and bows to the Divine in you”. What a beautiful sentiment, to recognize and honor the spark of God in each of us. May we always strive to do so in our daily lives.