Loveless Generalizations

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You are bad at most things. We all are. What is something you are absolutely terrible at? Or better yet, what is something terrible that you cannot stop doing? How do you respond to yourself in your failure? It probably depends on your frame of mind. Some days you effusively coddle yourself with emotions, while other days you castigate yourself with proverbial floggings.

I was talking with two of my nieces and my nephew the other day. My nephew Cash is the youngest. His sisters were perpetually lamenting what a bad child he was. His oldest sister Halina was especially frustrated. Some children are probably bad most of the time, but Cash is not one of them. I explained to his sister that he is not a bad child, but simply a child who sometimes behaves badly.

I asked her what was something that she once did badly but now did well. “Swimming,” she answered. I asked her how she became a better swimmer. “My daddy taught me.” And so I asked her if her daddy ever told her what a bad swimmer she was. She explained that he certainly had not but had actually encouraged her along the way, praising her for small improvements. Then I asked her if others referred to her as “Bad Swimmer Halina” back when she did not swim well. Of course they did not. That one particular void of success had not defined her.

So why is it that you expect your brother to behave better when you tell him what a bad child he is all the time?” She began to see my point as well as her young mind could. I was trying to help her to see something that many of us have so much trouble seeing even into adulthood. That is, the human brain likes to generalize because it helps to reconcile our feelings.

It would take a great deal of deep consideration for my niece to understand the many variables leading to her brother’s misbehavior. Among simple human badness would be boredom and a desire for attention, both stemming from his role as a youngest sibling with no brothers. Furthermore, in her momentary frustrations with her little brother, she becomes emotionally too blind to even assert what are his copious redeeming qualities.

She begins with a failure to comprehend her brother’s context and adds to that an emotional filter that prevents her from seeing her brother as anything but the troublemaker he is to her in that moment (or comparable prior moments). In that moment there is that which feels true to her, and her brain, autonomously as it were, creates a typecast generalization of her brother that reconciles that particular reality.

I think we can forgive my niece for not fully having learned this lesson. But what is the excuse for the rest of us?

Love is a discipline that demands immense courage. Love demands courage because it is itself a quest for understanding the nature of its object. My niece absolutely loves to swim, but a swimming pool is deadly if one is not studious regarding its dangers. To master swimming demanded of her a particular humility which undergirded her process of acquiring patient understanding.

She had to not only discover the nature of water, but of gravity, of her own buoyancy, muscular strength, and propensity for experiencing fatigue. In other words, a love of swimming demanded a knowledge of complex relationships amongst body, mind, and matter. It was not enough to keep herself afloat with mere volition. And if such a willpower is possible, it would no doubt demand much more discipline and understanding than doggy paddles or breaststrokes.

This is true of anything we love. Do you love to draw, or sing, or dance, or lift weights, or spin records? What are those things unto which you have subjected yourself? When the endeavor proved itself difficult, was it the discipline that needed adjusting or was it you and your relationship to the discipline?

This is of course true of all relationships. This is why I am nauseated when people seek to humanize their animals. There is something fundamentally grotesque about seeing dogs, genetic wolves, treated like human children. Any good dog trainer will essentially encourage to lead your dog  with the assertive calmness of an alpha wolf. In other words, a good dog trainer will encourage you to patiently pursue an understanding of your pet’s hidden and rudimentary nature.

“A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.”

Proverbs 12:10 KJV

Furthermore, our love for other human beings demands this steady and humble discipline- this courageous quest to pursue understanding for the benefit of the objects of our love and affection. But this discipline needs not to be one saved for only the people of which we are most fond. This way of thinking ought to become an all-encompassing discipline of the spirit and the mind.

How many of the world’s ailments would be pacified if we sought better understanding of ourselves, of our loved ones, and of all those around us? We are so very quick to dismiss others with blanket generalizations (labeling, name-calling, and so on). We so often do this even to bolster our own conflated sense of self-aggrandizement and piety. But even the densest of us have regard for the plot in which the villain is a multi-dimensional figure. Such stories resonate with us because they are true. Everyone is multi-dimensional. Some are just much more difficult to see beneath the surface.

If we operate with this assumption, that every person originates from a context which is chock-full of complex variables, then we will be much quicker in seeking to understand them. This will create opportunities in which to influence others to become better, but moreover it will drive us to transcending levels of human thought and existence. Love, like all disciplines, shapes us. Like a spindle shapes wood on a lathe.

“No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.”

1 John 4:12-13 NASB

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Tribal Integrity

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And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?

Genesis 4:8-9 KJV

The irony of Cain’s retort is that he was technically not his brother’s keeper- at least in the paternal sense- for Able was a grown man. He smugly asked the question to dodge the confession God was clearly importuning. Cain’s words are particularly aggravating because he was obviously not expected to be his brother’s keeper in that sense. What further revealed Cain’s callousness is that he didn’t desire to be his brother’s keeper in any sense.

Cain’s first sin was self-exoneration. In the very act of sacrifice, he revealed his own delusions of self-importance. He had prepared an offering that was displeasing to the Lord but convenient for himself. God chided Cain for his inward motives. His delusions quickly devolved into an entitled self-centeredness and then into covetousness. God compassionately warned Cain to “master his sin.” Instead he left his covetousness unbridled, and it resulted in the first murder in recorded history.

Human beings have always existed for worship of our Creator. Worship is not merely wrapped up in art or song but in the very activity of our lives. Our fellowship with God was always intended to be the hub of our existence- from it all else flows. When the parents of Cain sinned, corruption and brokenness became humanity’s inheritance. There is, of course, a greater inheritance gifted unto the children of God. But until death or the fulfillment of the second act of Christ’s coming, humanity will suffer the plight of our fallen nature.

“How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.”

Isaiah 14:12-15 KJV

Our befallen nature distorts our reality and predisposes us to see false gods everywhere, even in ourselves. The devil himself is our example. The story of Cain reveals to us the logical conclusions of our idolatry. His self-adulation deluded him into entitledness and thus covetousness. James reminds us “when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.”

The majority of mankind are not so murderous, but we do have a propensity toward individualism due to our delusional self-appraisal. To be clear, it is natural and necessary for one to pursue their own needs primarily, but the individualist pursues his own needs exclusively.

Humans have always been tribal by nature, and this has protected and enhanced civilizations throughout history. We are social beings who thoroughly depend upon one another. While self-concern is necessary to the success of the individual, and therefore to the tribe; individualism is damning to the tribe and therefore to the individual.
There are many variables that encourage individualism in a society, and one must be keen to break free from these influences. For they arrouse in us the greatest defects of our humanity- wantonness and vanity. Individualism may transpire into ruthless competitiveness or devestating indifference (such as neglect)- all of which diminish the integrity of the tribe. But there is another motivater that agitates our unity as a people. Fear.

I don’t mean fear in a legitimized sense. There are enemies of humanity ever pursuing havoc and seeking to goad a society into submission. They are the ones for whom fear exists. Fear is reaction. It is not a reaction that springs up to transform us into cowards. It springs up to motivate our preparedness for battle. Fear exists to be overcome, and it is overcome by tactical confrontation. In this sense, fear is an appropriate motivator. Unfortunately, fear is often treated more harmfully. In a society so motivated by comfort, virtues like courage become all but lost.

In modern western society this notion has become endemic. A successful human society has always been tribalistic. Tribalism requires that all men be keepers of their brethren, for both love and survival. Any threat to the integrity of the tribe must be dealt with properly, lest it corrode the entire society from the inside out.

In the 1980s the media helped to proliferate a pedophile scare. Anyone growing up around this time may recall the warnings to beware of perverts apparently lurking around every corner. My church even had its very own “Tickle Man.” He was a fat old man with a beard who would tickle random children. When his sordid, pedophiliac past was eventually revealed, the pastor promptly excommunicated him from the congregation.

Perhaps there was an uptick in perverts in the 80s. It’s hard to say. In the very least, a great many of them were put away or more carefully monitored. While monsters still do exist in our society, the vast majority within have, in the very least, a desire not to harm one’s neighbor. We would all be better for it if we took a step further.

“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves….”

Philippians 2:3 NASB

Christ famously prepares his disciples for their ministry by admonishing them to be “gentle as doves, but wise as serpents.” We truly have an obligation to be suspect of others. In any society, trust out to be earned. The trouble comes when we lose our ability to even issue trust because we are so motivated by a fear that is rooted in the toxic generalization that every peer is a probably threat. There needs to be a sense in which we can plan for the worst but give a benefit of doubt to presume the best about others. A society crippled by fear of one another will be a society easily subjugated. Even in the absence of threats of domination, a society will be totally maimed by fear.

The integrity of a society demands personal discipline coupled with deep love and servitude for one’s family and peers. Individualism (in the form of neglect or aggression toward others) and fear (in the form of total and general societal distrust) are the acids that deteriorate the fabrics of a society. These truisms are applicable to any society, though I would argue that a society is all the better off in the presence of shared creeds that regard the reason humankind exists at all. But that is another matter.

Everybody, Stereotype

Image you are driving in your car in an unfamiliar city. Your phone is dead, you are running on empty, and it is pouring rain. You grit your teeth just hoping your car will make it to a gas station or, in the very least, a safe stopping point. You drive deeper into neighborhoods with boarded up buildings, storefront churches, cash advance outfits, and the like. You are lost, and the only thing dissipating more than your surroundings is your gas tank. Your car is hacking along on fumes, and suddenly, as the watery squall gushes at you, your car begins to hydroplane.

You lose control, slide into a curb, and you blow out your front passenger tire. You are stranded. You drape your jacket over your head and step out of the car. The street is  becoming a lazy river. Your shoes and socks are soaked through immediately. You lock your doors and hurry onto the sidewalk and begin scanning in every direction- looking for bright lights and signs of commercial life. You spot a brightly lit banner about a quarter mile up the road. The rain starts to subside. As you walk toward the fluorescent lights, the once pouring rain is now a trickle.

Things seems to be advancing in your favor. You begin to relax. Your surroundings are unfamiliar and feel rather unsafe, but you tell yourself that your night cannot get any worse. “Surely the weather has kept everyone in for the night,” you say to yourself. Despite your comparatively zen state, you are still on red alert. You finally make it to the bright lights up the road. There is a sign on the door. Haphazardly written in Sharpie it says, “Kenny’s Chit’lins -N- Fish closed- power outage.” You hang your head and let out a sigh. Then the worst happens. A car pulls up to the side of the street, just a few feet behind you.

The muffler is loud. There are men raising their voices. Your stomach sinks. You are outnumbered. You resign to the fact that your night is about to get a whole lot worse. Maybe this is the last night of your life. After all of your years on this earth- your overcoming of adversities; your celebrations of your life’s greatest joys and victories, this is not how you imagined it would end. Sopping wet, staring through the window of Kenny’s Chit’lins -N- Fish. “What even is a chitterling?” you ask yourself. “I guess it’s too late to find out now.” The car door closes. Four-five-six men step out of the car. At least it looks that way from the shoddy reflection. You are too afraid to face them. They seem to be walking toward you. You slowly turn around. One man reaches into the pocket of his large coat. He slowly pulls his hand out of his pocket and brandishes a pocket-sized New Testament.

Now stop. How much relief do you feel in that moment after realizing that these men are on their way to a Bible study?

Do you see what you did there? You just profiled this group of men. You automatically assumed that just because these ostensible goons were on their way to a Bible study that they must be safe. How dare you!

This is the logic of some people in reverse. They might say something like, “See? You shouldn’t stereotype others. Those men turned out to be nice, church-going boys.” What they would fail to see is that they have just traded a negative stereotype for a positive one. Apparently one is allowed while the other is not. To such a person I would explain that they do not have a problem with stereotypes, they only have a problem with stereotypes when they pertain to a group of people they believe are socially oppressed.

It is, in fact, impossible not to stereotype.  When you are walking through the woods, you might recoil at the sight of a vine because your brain has not immediately figured out that it is not a venomous snake. Some paths in the brain are longer than others, and your brain has a tendency to quickly generalize an experience before it has time to analyze it. Stereotyping is the brain’s way of not taking a gamble when the stakes of survival are high.

Go back to the illustration from before. Before you had time to analyze the situation, you had to make value judgements to prepare for your own survival. Upon learning that the men were apparently harmless, you had to incorporate separate generalizations in order to get a picture of what these men might be like based on your general experience with the types of people that attend Bible studies. They may not always be stellar acquaintances, but your experience at least tells you they are unlikely to rob, injure, or murder you. Your knowledge or personal encounter with inner-city crime statistics or criminal encounters tells you the risk of danger is at least more likely.

When your survival is at stake, there is no time to worry about false assumptions. Once you are able to safely gather more information regarding your encounter you are able to determine the probable safety of the situation and make the decision to either salute, flee, or prepare for battle. If and when you are enabled to calculate that you are safe, then you may begin to lay down your arms of generalization.

Stereotypes should never be forsaken. They should only be refined through furthering keen observation and learning. They should be seen as tools for survival, anecdotes of information, and sources of good humor. When need be, they can be surrendered on an individual basis. For by their nature they are generalizations, and generalizations hold different value in the context of genuine relationships. Everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, but only the foolish will on principle forsake their doubts to seem cordial or accepting. After all, social niceties only exist in those not absolved by danger.