Category Archives: Acceptance

Slaves to Custom

Having just finished attending the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize Forum, I have to be careful in using language that in any way could diminish the atrocities of modern-day enslavement.  To my embarrassment and astonishment, I have learned that there are approximately 168 million children currently victimized as virtual slaves worldwide.

These are not cases of children working for their parents or relatives for sustenance.  These are kids who are most often abducted, sold and involuntarily subjected to dangerous and demanding work in sex brothels, mines, fields and factories.  They are forced into child prostitution or the labor black market to produce many of the clothes, foods and electronic devices that we in the West use every day.  By comparison, the zika virus is incidental.  The real epidemic facing us as human beings is found in the involuntary servitude of children, some as young as five years old.

The scope and horror of child slavery is so broad as to be nearly invisible to those of us in the West; we have become very good at numbing ourselves from such overwhelming issues, rendering them to statistical status.  But the idea of enslaved young children numbering more than half of the entire U.S. population is a reality to warrant shame for every one of us, and more than enough to summon the resources and resolve of humanity to end this modern holocaust.  And yet, it continues.

The focus of this year’s Peace Prize Forum has prompted me to wonder about how untenable circumstances arise in the first place, and what combination of apathy, ignorance and disinterest is capable of rendering otherwise empathetic human beings into uncaring bystanders.  The transformation is both baffling and fascinating.

I think it must be like the example of the frog and the heated pot of water. Legend has it that if you were to place a frog into a pot of boiling liquid (no frog has been harmed in the writing of this piece), it would immediately jump out to escape the heat.  However, if you were to place the frog into a pot of tepid water and gradually increase the heat, the frog would adapt to the changing temperature so well that it would remain in the water, even to the point where it would succumb to the boiling temperature.

We human beings seem to be very good at accepting our environments and the discomforts that we observe around us.  We have innate senses of right and wrong, but can be maddeningly silent in the face of the most atrocious violations of human rights.  What may begin as an act of desperation can transition to a custom.  What is accepted as a custom may be adopted as a cultural norm.  And cultural norms can evolve to a sovereign practice, an “emperor’s new clothes” ritual, wherein observers recognize the wrong but remain too silent in the face of it.

If we can be tepid in the face of child slavery, we should not wonder at our seeming acceptance of so many other injustices that confront us daily.  The idea that a Nicaraguan producer might have to exist on less than $2 per day will have little resonance in our combined conscience, until we personally are faced with the decisions that a $2 income produces.  The alarm bells of wealth disparity that continue to sound within our global economy will generate little response, until finally, the top 1% controls it all.  We are unlikely to address the plague of gun violence in our society, until one of our own family members is among the next 50 to be destroyed.  We will accept the outrageous insults of politicians and their cronies, until the attacks become focused upon our ethnicity or lifestyle.  We seem to be slaves to the easy acceptance of the warming waters around us, only jumping at the boiling point.

I’m sure there are elements of the human psyche which psychologists could use to explain these tendencies about us.  Maybe we should read about them to better understand the risks and threats to our collective existence.  Our slavery to apathy is filled with consequence, whether we see it or not.  Dante Alighieri, poet extraordinaire of the Middle Ages, even warned us about it in his own time, observing that “the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who,in a time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”  Knowing the consequences might be an important thing, before we fall victim to our own nature….


The Other

We’ve all experienced it.  It might have been a classroom where none of the other students were known to you.  Maybe it was a conference where every other attendee, except you,  seemed to have an old friend with whom to sit.    Perhaps the first day on a new job left you feeling as though you had taken on the loneliest assignment in the world.  As adaptable as we human beings are, those moments of being “the other” can be among the most excruciating experiences we encounter.  Such occasions are the very definition  of being alone. Whether due to being new to a group, or of different race, gender, age, language or any other distinguishing characteristic of ourselves, it’s a role likely each of us would rather not have to play.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve found myself in just such circumstances a number of times.  Among several college classroom presentations, a conference in Nicaragua and a seminar at a New England retreat, I occupied the role of the other, unknown to those around me, unfamiliar with people who generally seemed to be quite familiar with one another, and in one case, not even able to converse in the same language as my peers.  To be sure, each of the venues was voluntary on my part and my expectations of unfamiliarity were identical to the reality in each situation; there were no surprises.  But anticipating that reality did not make for an easier adjustment to it.

What is the element deep inside that moves a group toward exclusivity and separation?  Comfort?  What is it inside of our own cognizance that tends to inhibit an immediate acceptance of each other?  Fear?  What is the addiction we have to being part of the group, even at the expense of one who is not?  Suspicion?  Psychologists have the answer to these and related questions, I’m sure.  As for me, I’m just left with the uncomfortable feelings.

But I experienced something else, an unexpected phenomenon. Within these moments of feeling apart from the group, one venue left me feeling welcomed.  And interestingly, the place where I was in fact the most “other-wise” than my fellow participants, is where I became most comfortably assimilated.

Seminar Breakout
Seminar Breakout

My week in Nicaragua was spent attending a workshop for rural cooperative members, a “certificate program” which presented the holistic elements of successful organizations and individuals, including elements of cooperative history, organizational innovation, gender issues, environmental impact, spirituality in work and organizational/individual health.  (We even shared a hike to the top of Peñas Blancas mountain, together!)

Everyone to the top!
Everyone to the top!

I arrived at the conference site on Sunday evening.  By Monday morning there were no cliques or sub-groups, only a room filled with expectant participants, fifty Nicaraguans and two gringos.  

Did I mention that, to my great embarrassment, I still do not speak Spanish?  That every word addressed to me and every response I offered had to be filtered through an interpreter?  Integrating with a new group is hard enough.  Inserting oneself into an assembly in another country is more so.  And acceptance in the face of differing languages is a gulf many of us might deem too wide to conquer.  In truth, I had met some of the attendees in previous settings.  But the gathering at the base of Peñas Blancas  embraced me as a full partner in our mutual journey of education, and in ways I do not always experience in such gatherings of such disparate folks.

A smile, a nod, a handshake and even a wave each have the capacity to draw one into the heart of a crowd; I received gifts of each.  Few words were exchanged among us, given my previously-referenced language deficit, but that insufficiency mattered not.  I felt “at home.”

One week later, I attended another seminar, with attendees of similar outlooks on topics such as the environment, energy and the economy.  We traveled from different sections of the country, sought the same kinds of insights and shared similar expectations.  We even spoke the same language.  Yet here, among fellow countrymen and women, I experienced a curious solitariness.  Small groups had assembled for a social hour and busily chatted away, I imagine sharing their stories of travel to the site, renewing perhaps previous acquaintances, discovering those elements of likeness which cultivate the feeling of belonging to one another and the group at large.  Several times I sidled up to a cluster in hopes of inserting myself, and each occasion was met with barely an acknowledgement.  Of course, each moment made the next even more awkward.

Over the course of the weekend, my role as the other dissipated and I connected with any number of friendly and enthusiastic people.  Small group interactions which necessitate collective participation and expose your thoughts, experiences and uniqueness usually open the doors to collegiality and even friendships.  But I can’t help but wonder what there is in our national culture or customs that seems to require this sort of justification before acceptance is extended to strangers.  Are they less worthy in one moment than the next?

Naturally, we are all inclined to make judgments about others based upon what we hear and the behaviors we observe.  But in the wake of the unqualified reception I received in one setting and the awkward time of trial in the other, I now more clearly recognize the duty that I have to others.  New acquaintances deserve my immediate and best efforts at inclusiveness.  It may just be that my Nicaraguan associates have experienced sufficient hardship and trials in life to understand that there is no time for artificial barriers when it comes to embracing the other….

The "Others"
The “Others”