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Seeing Things

Seeing Things

Michael Jinkins

Most of us ministers like to please people. We like to be liked. As my old friend, Ted Wardlaw says, in our more extreme forms, ministers are just “quivering masses of availability” afraid to risk making anyone unhappy.

Thus it wasn’t entirely a surprise when a minister friend, a few years ago, asked me why he couldn’t shake off a negative comment from a member of his church when dozens of other church members had praised him for doing the very thing this person didn’t like.

We were sitting at our favorite coffee shop chewing the fat when he asked me, “Why is it that the negative sticks and the positive slides right off?”

My response was pretty predictable. And from the perspective of the biological development of our psyches it is factual.

When my ancestors, like Homo Australopithecus (including my famous Aunt Lucy), were wandering around the plains of the Serengeti, quickly reacting to a vague rustling in the tall grass provided a definite evolutionary advantage. If that meant that our ancestors were jumpy semi-simians, statistically it was worthwhile being anxious. If only one time in fifty the rustling turned out to be a lion, the odds were with my survival if I always reacted to a perceived danger, even if the rustling turned out to be nothing more than the wind or a restless flock of birds.

But now this very same primitive reactivity does not serve me or any other Homo Sapiens well (obviously we named ourselves because I can guarantee you nobody else would have named our whole species “wise”).

We inhabit a very complex world.

This heightened reactivity certainly doesn’t serve ministers well, because our calling is “to speak the truth in love.” And, although Jesus told us that “the truth will set you free,” first it may make you pretty miserable or uncomfortable. And I know of some messengers of misery and discomfort who’ve gotten themselves shot because of their messages. Sometimes they may only be shooting at the piano player, but they can sure as heck wing the guy in the pulpit.

Of course, it’s not just ministers who experience the whole “perceptual bias” problem. And that’s what the bio-psychologist call this tendency to see danger when ordinarily danger isn’t there.

My mother recently told me she had killed a snake in her yard. My mother and we live in the same neighborhood on Saint Simons Island. I have had a green snake named Bert in the back garden and a black snake named Ernie in the jasmine around the oak tree out front for as long as I can remember. I’m grateful to them both. They love to eat bad bugs. And they are as cute as the dickens. One day Bert was doing his imitation of a submarine periscope making his way across the back lawn, and he had me in stitches.

I’ve explained to my mother many times that the only snakes any of our neighbors have seen in the ten years we’ve lived on our island are black and green grass snakes who are beneficial (they love to eat mosquitoes). She told me she doesn’t care. The only good snake is a dead snake. So when I asked her what kind of snake it was that she’d killed, she said it’s dead now and that’s all that matters.

Okay, I get it. She’s afraid of snakes.

That reactive bias worked really well for us when we were monkeys in trees. We saw danger in anything that slithered by. But, as St. Darwin of the Cam might have said, “Once I thought as a monkey and saw things as a monkey, but now I have put away monkey things.”

I don’t have to live enthralled to my highly reactive biases anymore.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., the long time Director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, in his classic book, “Full Catastrophe Living,” says that we are programmed by our biology to make judgements about our experience. We make these judgments quickly and continually. “The habit of categorizing and judging our experience,” he writes, “locks us into mechanical reactions that we are not aware of and that often have no objective basis at all.”

Now, I would qualify his observation just a little to say that our judgments sometimes do have “an objective basis,” but that the basis for a fairly universal judgment is often based on a very small sample of experience. In any case, I believe he is right about how we can go about lowering our reactivity, our anxiety, our fears, and our tendency toward judgment, all of which are connected, and none of which serve us as well today as they did thousands of years ago.

Dr. Kabat-Zinn explains that we need to cultivate the ability to be “an impartial witness” to our own lives. He continues: “If we are to find a more effective way of handling the stress in our lives, the first thing we will need to do is to be aware of these automatic judgments so that we can see through our own prejudices and fears and liberate ourselves from their tyranny.”

The tyranny of anxieties and fears (and their cousins, hatred and violence) threaten our society, indeed our world, in ways that have truly bewildered those whose faith is in a steady drumbeat of progress. Anxieties and fears always have threatened society. All you have to do is visit a really old, long-populated piece of real estate to notice the walls our Bronze and Iron and Stone Age ancestors built to keep away those “others” whom, they believed, “are always by nature a threat.”

Difference, among our ancestors (segregated as they were in their little warring tribes), meant danger. And living today in a complex, pluralistic society, rich in diversity of ethnicities, cultures and religions, is terrifying to those folks who feel safe only among those who look and feel and think and believe as they do. Indeed, their fears lead them to skew their way of noticing, observing and evaluating their experiences of others.

Every instance that confirms the idea that those others, those different people, those with different cultural and religious norms, are indeed more violent, more complacent, more dishonest, is remembered; while experiences that contradict these assumptions tend to be dismissed.

Every instance that confirms the idea that “people like me” are good, and industrious, and honest, is remembered; while experiences that contradict these assumptions tend to be dismissed.

The more isolated people are, the less personal deep experiences they have with people unlike them, the harder it is to break free from the tyranny of reactive judgment based on reflexive fears. And a single terrible tragic experience is likely to negate a large variety of positive reports of good people who are different.

Recently a great New Orleanian died: Shirley Ann Grau. A winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, she was a true Southern character who deserves to be as well remembered as Harper Lee and Walker Percy.

When her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “Keepers of the House,” was published in 1965, the story, about a wealthy white widower and his black housekeeper who fall in love, secretly marry and together have three children, drove the local Klan into a frenzy. They tried to burn a cross on Mrs. Gray’s lawn, but forgot to bring a shovel. Consequently the cross had to be lit lying down on her grass. Their attempted act of terrorism failed completely because Mrs. Grau and her husband (a professor of philosophy at Tulane) weren’t terrorized, although their St. Augustine grass got scorched. And when death threats started arriving through the mail, she let it be known that she had grown up in Alabama shooting squirrels and rabbits with a .22 rifle, and she was probably a better shot than the people who threatened her.

The reason I’m telling her story is to give context to something she says about those of us who are Southerners – although I truly don’t think we’re all that unique. But she said: “The Southerner has been bred with so many memories that it’s almost as if memory outreaches life.”

True. Our cultural memories can weigh us down. Especially when we consider that memory is a selective process that in most instances, to some considerable extent, only reinforces our biases.

This is where the clinician, Dr. Kabat-Zinn, helps me.

If I cultivate deliberately my capacity to serve as “an impartial witness” to my own life, this means that I am better able to see things I previously filtered out unconsciously. I can learn, in time, how to make conscious the unconscious, to make visible the invisible. Then I can examine critically my own hidden assumptions and latent biases in light of a larger, more informed perspective on life.

If I don’t learn to do this, then every time the grass rustles in the wind, I’m going to tremble in fear of lions, even though they live a continent away. Every time I see a lizard on the sidewalk, I’m going to jump. And every time I meet someone who is different from me, I will risk missing the inestimable gift God has given us in his creation of the only actual race there is, the human race.

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