Monday, November 19, 2007

People, Problems, Friends, Family

I thought our sermon yesterday was going to be about how we can see people as problems or well, people. It never really got into that, but it was enough to get me thinking. It turns out that a guiding principle of UUism is the idea of the inherent worth and dignity of each person. Not surprisingly, one thing that really drew me to Enki as a holistic model of education was the concept that wisdom, compassion, and vitality are the birthright of all human beings. I think the inspiration is Buddhist, although for me they are both humanist ideas.

(You can have interesting discussions on whether these traits are inherent or not, if they have to be earned or learned, and whether foolishness, impulsiveness, and stupidity are also inherent human traits. Really, they make for fascinating conversation.)

It is really easy to objectify people, especially if they have hurt you. A sibling who has many problems and whose problems have spilled out and affect every family gathering can easily become a problem. It's hard to look at that person as a person, as someone who is going through the human experience just as we are. We love to share joy, love , and happiness; it is harder to be faced with fear and pain. We need to see past it, and remember that over all we share very similar goals as human beings ~ to be alive, to contribute to the next generation (whether biologically or not), to be happy.

It is also easy to objectify people when we allow them to become other, rather than us. People of different skin color or economic background. People of different religions or with different politics. Criminals. Youth. Homeless individuals and families. It is human to seek people who are like us, and for a long time, it was very human to divide ourselves up into us and other, vying for food and land with other tribes and societies.

We still do it, on a large scale, and I suppose, on a small scale. Obviously, we wage war in other countries, still scrambling for a bigger piece of the earth's resources. We say that we do it to provide democracy, ease human suffering, etc., but if that is true, all I can ask is, what about Darfur?

I wanted to touch today on the objectification of people, even people we know and care for deeply. We trivialize our relationships with people. We are slow to offer friendship, preferring to keep people in the categories of acquaintance or casual friend. We label people instead of embracing our closeness. For instance, I have had a tendency to introduce the woman who lives next door to my dad as his neighbor. She is far more than his neighbor, she is his friend, and she was my mother's dear friend for 29 years. As a teenager I spent countless hours at her home, listening to her tell stories of being a young woman in the 20s and 30s. She is an honorary great aunt to my children. She is a respected elder in our family. And yet, I say neighbor. I diminish her importance to our family. I offer a label, instead of a relationship. When you think about, why does anyone need to know where she lives?

I'm not saying that the labels are unimportant, but they provide information that has nothing to do with relationship. I have one friend who has introduced me to many people she knows, and she always describes me as her friend. In fact, she rarely gives the rest of the information (from our homeschooling group, from our AP group, etc.) unless it asked for. Likewise, when she talks about her other friends it is pretty much up to me to know how she is connected to various people, and I suppose that it doesn't really matter if she is talking about a friend from high school or a friend who shares a hobby with her. They are all her friends.

I know the sting of being introduced to someone via label versus relationship. It's like being dismissed, as if you are not all that important to the person introducing you to someone they know, especially if they know that person well. You can be friends with someone for a decade, and suddenly be reduced to the wife of someone who works with someone else's husband.

Why not offer relationship first, and explanation later? Even with new friends, how about saying, "This is my new friend", and offering facts when asked? Children can be amazing with this; they seem to recognize the gift of friendship far more readily than adults.

Lately, I had time to ponder this idea of relationship versus information. At my mother's funeral I looked around, and found myself connected to so many people because my mother had become friends with them. When it came time to introduce some of these people to Papa, he needed the information, yes, but I wanted him to know the relationship. "This is ____, she was my stepmother for a few years and she was very important to me as I was growing up." "This is ____, she was my mother's cousin and when we came back to California she and her children were the people we had to call family when it felt like ours was falling apart."

I'm thinking about this now because there will be introductions going around on Thanksgiving. I must remember that I can say "This is my good friend ____" when introducing someone. It sure beats "This is ____ from my play group." When introducing a family member it's easier, but I can elaborate on the relationship. I can mention how dear my SIL is to me, and how very much I like my mother-in-law.

Out of time, not out of thoughts . . .

(A few more thoughts. I don't think we consciously label people and describe our relationships with them in terms of facts versus relationship. In that, I don't mean I think we intend to cause hurt by it. I think it is a part of the information society we live in, and our disconnection from people. I do think it takes a conscious effort to change how we think of people and to move into relationship thinking. I also think, when it comes to the labels we use to describe family, that relationship is part of the label, so we don't need to add favorite or dear or beloved to each one.)

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