Why is it that we are always so sure of ourselves, so convinced that we’re right, about everything, all the time? Why do we consistently act as if how we perceive the world is “the one truth” – the RIGHT way?
I look around myself, at the state of the world, our economy, the politics and the dire predictions and feel disheartened. The divisions of power are expanding and images of unrest and distrust are everywhere. I even see it in my little home town so its not just a city problem or someone else’s life, its here, its all around us, everyday. Our technological world with all of its gifts and the media world with its instant access bombard us every day with image after image and scripted sound bite after scripted sound bite. Until they would have us believe that they are the authority on our current world, its definition and our condition. It seems like our world of instant gratification has reduced our perspective to small bits of data that can be easily ingested in less than two minutes.
One of the results of this kind of political and social system is that we have become a polarized country. You either buy in to this side or that side, there are no in betweens, and there are no other truths. It is so hard for me to swallow and yet I see the evidence of that belief system every day. It is how media makes money and how political interests galvanize voters to rally for their cause. I admit it – I just don’t get it. When did it become bad to seek consensus; to be open to a diversity of ideas; to give respect to another’s point of view? But is it truly what they would have us believe – is that the real world – really?
I got in trouble recently for not requiring everyone in my community to say the Pledge of Allegiance when they come to the public meetings I run. I wasn’t trying to stir up controversy or trouble; I just wanted everyone who came through the door to feel comfortable and included in our community government. I figured this was a small way in which I could help people see that the door was open for anyone who wants to come join in, regardless of their religion or political affiliations, or country of origin. It was as simple as that for me. Since then I have heard people say that I wasn’t a patriot and have been on the receiving end of racial slurs and accusations. It has been hurtful and shaming. I would never deliberately disrespect anyone or make a decision that was an attack on someone else’s belief system. I just believe in participation and that takes different forms in different venues.
I am a person who was raised with and by veterans. My family has served in the military for generations. I was raised to believe in a life of service, but guns scare me so I have given my service in other ways, a career in social service and public health; marriage to a mental health counselor; volunteerism. In my own way I have been a hard working patriot my whole life but my world is not the same as everyone else’s. So to be at the receiving end of such accusations was very painful for me. I couldn’t understand why people couldn’t see where I was coming from but they didn’t, and many still don’t.
So I began to wonder – what is it they don’t see, whether by choice or inability? What it is that I don’t see from my perspective? What are we missing when we can’t see where others are coming from? What are they not seeing about me? It is a question that I am still struggling with – Why do so many people choose to only see things one way – their way?
Over the years my path has been blessed with opportunities to interact with many different cultures and people. I’ve studied lifestyles and belief systems from one end of our country to another and I’ve learned a few things along the way and at the top of the list is – nobody sees the world the same way as I do – nobody. And if you don’t see the world the same way I do, then what is it that you do see? And which of us is right and which of us is wrong? Or could it be that we’re both right or maybe even both wrong? There are many in this country who would argue about the righteousness of their beliefs while condemning the beliefs of another. But I can’t help think, what makes me more right than you? And more importantly, to my world, what makes you think you’re more right than I am?
The culture and environment in which we live our lives often dictates how those questions get answered. It is how we see our world and how we approach looking into the worlds of others that determine whether or not we move forward with respect or conflict; peace or violence; consensus or a split vote.
It’s difficult to define the differences in culture, environments, between people, and certainly the varying perceptions of what we lightly refer to as reality. But what I’ve learned is that reality is defined by your perception of the environment for you.
I’ve known for most of my life that there may be only one planet earth but there are many different worlds contained on this single sphere. For instance, I can assure you that the diva who lays down a thousand dollars for a pair of Jimmy Choo platform heels lives in an entirely different world than I do. Not that I wouldn’t like to be a part of that world, at least long enough to come back with the Jimmy Choo’s. I don’t live in that world though. And I don’t live in the world of the single mother, struggling to figure out how to feed her children and pay the rent at the same time, at least not anymore. It is however a world I have known well years ago when I lived in a different world. Neither do I live in the world of the homeless man being pushed from one spot to another and left without hope, nor the triumphant world of the Ivy League graduate heading for a path of open doors. That doesn’t mean those worlds don’t exist. I’m just not part of them and don’t have a frame of reference for many of them. So if they exist it stands to reason other ones would as well. Even when they’re not part my world it doesn’t mean they’re not out there. I have travelled through and between many worlds. It is that richness of diversity that has provided texture and humility to my life. I have been to places so remote and isolated that running water and indoor plumbing were luxuries unattainable, for entire villages. Yet when I visited I was humbled by the generosity of the people I met, who opened up their homes and willingly shared whatever they had with me.
What I have learned from my excursions is to honor the worlds you walk through and try to respect what they have to teach you, no matter how the lesson is delivered. I try to discount little and be open to possibility. In the book, How People Change, Alexis Wheelis wrote, “Freedom is the awareness of alternatives and the ability to choose and so may be gained or lost, extended or diminished.” I first read that as a young struggling single mother in her first year of college. I had no idea what life held for me back then but I knew that I believed those words. That statement sparked a light in me that remained ever since and has become a mantra that I try to live by every day. It has been hard at times over the years but I have faithfully worked to be aware of as many of the alternatives as I can and to maintain a willingness to make choices that may be new or challenging for me. It has often been a scary proposition, the new and uncharted. The lessons I’ve learned over the years as a result of that definition have been life changing.
One of those lessons happened a couple of years ago when my girlfriend and I took a camping trip that turned out to be more of a pilgrimage than the vacation we thought it was going be. Everything that happened over ten days was either all quite by accident and only a random set of events if you live in the world governed by facts and linear thinking or it was a journey of providence designed to teach two old ladies that they had a lot to learn about turning back and changing how you think. It will be left for you, gentle reader, to make up your own mind – coincidence or providence?
Cindy B and I have been friends for over 25 years and we have been camping together with a group of girlfriends every single one of those years. So when we hit the road to go camping in 2010 I had no idea it would end up being such a life changing event. Over the course of 11 days we drove 1100 miles into the southwest and back and travelled through so many worlds that I lost count. This is what happened on the second day of our trip.
We drove into the Zion National Park and planned to visit the canyon floor and do a bit of hiking. Neither of us had ever been to Zion and we were both excited to see it. I’ve always wanted to stand at the bottom of that canyon and look up. I don’t know exactly what happened but somehow we took a wrong turn, which as often happens, was the beginning of a great adventure. We found ourselves on a two lane highway that instead of going down into the bottom of the canyon was winding its way up a cliff face in a series of death defying switchbacks. My poor friend Cindy was driving and the dizzying heights and lack of a place to turn around were making her extremely uncomfortable. This was her first trip to Utah and only the second day into our trip so she was a bit skittish. To make matters worse it was a construction nightmare. The already narrow two lanes went down to one as we approached a flagger at the bottom of a very steep hill. He waved us through hurriedly and so we had no choice but to keep going up. At the next switch back we saw a sign that said, to our utter dismay, “Tunnel – Next 7 miles” – seven miles? Holy c*#p! I mean seriously, who builds a seven mile long tunnel in the first place – puts it on the side of a cliff with no place to turn around and then closes one lane? I’m a pretty brave traveller but it was enough to start my heart pounding and my knees shaking.
Then my worst nightmares began to unfold when Cindy turns to me and says, “I don’t think I can do this anymore – I can’t stop shaking – you have to drive….”
And right on cue, my karma being what it is, there suddenly appeared a perfect place to pull over and switch seats, thus taking my only excuse for saying no and tossing it over the side of the cliff. Reluctantly I switched into the driver’s seat trying to put on a brave face as I settled in and buckled up. The car in back went around us while we switched seats. We brought up the rear and as I pulled out onto the road I watched the car in front of us disappear into the tunnel. It looked like a great gaping maw across the road that sprung from the bottom of the cliff and sliced right into its face in the long upward climb out of the canyon. It was magnificent and terrifying at the same time.
As we entered into the dusk of the tunnel it took a minute for my eyes to adjust from the blazing sunlight just a moment before. In the space of a couple of breaths a strangely beautiful world opened up. It was dark but not pitch-black, we could see the curves and layers of the natural rock walls that the tunnel wormed its way through. Ahead there was a shadowy light, which struck me as odd since this tunnel was allegedly seven miles long. But as our eyes adjusted and we moved around the first of many bends in the tunnel I realized that up ahead there was hazy sunlight filtering in through a “window” cut in the wall of the canyon. As we rolled slowly up to the opening it revealed itself to be carved through the tunnel wall and opened up onto the opposite canyon wall which at this point was only about 10 or 15 feet away. It was magnificent, surreal and I almost involuntarily stopped before I realized it. I stayed still just long enough for Cindy to take a quick picture from the passenger’s seat. We continued to move through this weird world of light and shadow and the miles crawled by in mouth gaping wonder. It could be that eerie twilight mixed with adrenalin and wonder explains what happened next and why it was such a surprise to us. We had completely lost sight of the car ahead of us at some point and I will admit we had paused to take a couple of more pictures. I realize now that was a mistake but it was such a bewitching world, quiet with its dust motes circling lazily on the shafts of filtered sunlight that had bounced their way down the walls of this canyon to fracture and become pale and cast a dark world into hazy relief. We were caught in the heart of this quiet when I realized that I could see light at the end of the tunnel up around the next curve. And yes just like in the doomsayer’s mantra – the light was in fact a truck, followed by a bus!
We were jerked firmly back into the real world as a big black pickup truck rolled beside us and from out of the dark we clearly heard a very big voice yelling from the cab, “HEY WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN HERE?”
I didn’t have much time to contemplate the answer, since as the black pick up rolled past, a very large bus in the middle of the road followed it closely and a long line of cars was stacked up behind it. The bus pulled to a stop in the middle of the road in front of us and gave a serious hiss as it settled down onto its wheels and squatted menacingly before us, lights shining in our eyes and dust settling around us. It was like a scene from the Outer Limits. The door of the bus slowly swings open and out step two very large men in uniforms. They slowly approached our car as if trying to validate their friendly intentions.
I rolled my window down and a voice out of the dark slowly says, “I’m sorry ma’am but you can’t go through.”
“What do you mean we can’t go through?”
“I’m really sorry but I can’t move over to let you through. I’m too tall and there isn’t enough clearance,” and then the most dreaded words of all, “you’re going to have to turn around and go back.”
Turn around, at milepost six and three quarters, on this one lane for trucks and busses only, narrow road in the dark, with a bus load of tourists and a line of traffic watching, wonderful! I will spare you the details of how many times of inching forward and backing up it took, nor how nice the men were that acted as guides for us, but suffice it to say that it was poetically painful and embarrassing in equal measures. I did finally manage it and got behind the pilot car (It would have been nice to know there was a pilot car before we started, which explains a lot actually.) and slowly followed him back the way we had come and into the long winding darkness of the seven mile tunnel once again. As we entered what was left of the daylight at the bottom of the canyon the pilot car motioned us around and we found ourselves turned around and once again in line to go back through the oh so familiar tunnel, all seven miles of it.
We followed the line of cars back into the dark. It was a long and slow process but eventually we made it through the tunnel and out onto the other side of the mountain. Just past the end of the construction there was a large turn out and we both agreed we needed a break. We had been in the middle of a mountain for what seemed like forever and just needed a couple of minutes to adjust to the world of light again. Cindy stopped on her way around the car and pulled out her camera. “What are those animals?” she asked.
I looked over and recognized a prairie dog colony. They were, as prairie dogs do, standing up next to their holes with paws on their chests and watching our every move.
“They’re prairie dogs,” I told her as I watched them watch us.
“I feel like they’re talking about us,” she said as she watched them watch us while they chittered away.
“They probably are. I wonder what they’re saying,” I mused, “stupid woman got in big trouble…,” we chuckled and pulled back onto the road looking ahead and wondering what the next corner would reveal.
Later that night as we sat safely tucked into our tent in Bryce Canyon National Park, Cindy pulled out a book about Native American beliefs and their relationship with animals and their spirits. Animals and birds of all kinds play a significant role in the traditional cultures of many Native American tribes across North America. Each animal is endowed with its own characteristics and purpose and for many it represents the world of truth. Animal totems and spirits are used by elders to tell stories for both entertainment and even more importantly for teaching life lessons. Having grown up in Indian Country I understand and respect the teachings of my childhood and there is usually a message or lesson that I can learn from contained in them.
Cindy sat quietly reading while I finished making up my bed. As I sat down on my bed across from her, running her finger down the table of contents she causally asked, “did you know that prairie dogs were one of the animals in this book?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever read that one,” I replied, “what’s it say?”
She thumbed through the book until she found the right page and started to read silently. She came to the end of the short passage, stopped reading, looked straight at me and said, “You are not going to believe what this says at the end.”
“Why? What does it say?”
She looked back down at the book for a moment and then back up at me with a smile just catching on at the corners of her mouth, and began to read, “Basically it says if prairie dog has come into your life today, he’s trying to tell you to remember, that those tunnels run both ways….”
I didn’t believe her of course and demanded the book so I could see for myself and sure enough there is was, a quote that will echo in my brain for the rest of my life, “….he’s trying to tell you to remember that those tunnels run both ways…”
So I have met the light at the end of the tunnel and it was in fact a bus. But never again will I automatically assume that even if the light at the end of the tunnel is a bus that it necessarily means all is lost. I know now that there is nothing forcing me to stay on my path of collision and I will always have the freedom to change course if I so choose. And so it is with the rest of the worlds and people that inhabit this planet. I will always have a choice to give another person’s world the benefit of the doubt and realize just because something is a popular belief that doesn’t mean I have to go that direction too. I can choose to understand that the way I see my world and the perceptions of others can be different, even in conflict, and I can still choose to give others and their worldviews respect and honor our differences instead of condemning what makes me different from them. The only question left for now is do I have the ability to choose a different course now that I am aware of the alternatives? Will I extend my freedom? Will you?