Rattling the chains

“It’s what’s called a floating floor,“ had said the workman who had come to remove yet more chunks of my son’s wet room, “but that will mean absolutely nothing to you,”
“Actually, it does.” Not only is the term fairly self-explanatory, but I was heavily involved in the gutting and redesigning of my son’s home. Had I not known before, which I did, I would certainly have learned about floating floors back then when we had ripped the place apart.
“Oh,” said the workman. “I just assumed…” Yes, he had. And why would that be, then? Because I am a female? And a middle-aged one too?

It was on a par with the other workman engaged to do some maintenance on Nick’s decking, who condescendingly explained to me, several times, how wood swells when it dries in summer and shrinks when it is soaked by all the winter rain. I too had shrunk… from correcting this misapprehension, for I too had made an assumption… that it was a simple mistake and that he really did know how it worked and had simply said it wrong. It was an assumption that would cause havoc with my son’s woodwork…

Making assumptions seldom works out well. My son is very fond of the old saying about what happens when you assume anything, yet we are really good at taking things for granted where other people are concerned. Even with open minds and the best of intentions, we almost automatically work out what we would think, know or do if we were in what we perceive to be their shoes. The trouble is, we are not… our perception is partial at best, faulty at worst and we have no way of knowing the entirety of another person’s experience and knowledge, nor do we have their character. All we are doing s projecting our own onto theirs and expecting it to fit.

We are just as good at making assumptions about ourselves… and often get them just as wrong. The surface levels of the mind are in constant dialogue with each other,  and at least one of those levels is replete with what we think other people will, or might, think of us. Much of this comes from a learned, but  often erroneous, perception of who we are.

“A real man wouldn’t do that…”
“Women can’t change a tyre/put up shelves/lay bricks.”
“You’re too old/too young/too fat/too slim to do/wear/be that.”
You’ll never be able to/be as good as/be good enough to…”

These and a thousand other negative judgements, most of which are blatantly untrue, are picked up from many places as we grow up and grow older and colour our opinion of ourselves. We assume them to be true, even when there is a niggling doubt about their veracity. They can be crippling, often to the point where  we begin to believe they are true and never make the attempt to prove otherwise, even to ourselves.

If the judgements and assumptions that others make about us and superimpose upon us are based largely on how they would behave in a given situation, why does it never occur to us that the perceived flaws that they are projecting onto us may, in fact, be their own?

Those who feel they have no control over their own lives may try to control those more vulnerable than themselves. Those who feel that they are not good enough will often pass that feeling on to those over whom they have authority. It is not necessarily deliberate… it  is the ego’s mistaken attempt at self-defence.

Maybe, if we could see beyond the accumulated assumptions about ourselves that we have simply accepted over the years, we could be and do far more than we think. Why should gender or age define our talents or how we allow ourselves to express our personalities? Maybe confident curves would totally rock that little black dress…and maybe that dream you have held in your heart is no so impossible after all.

It makes all the difference if you have someone who believes in you… someone who is ready to support you as you try and celebrate the attempt as much as the possible success. A little genuine encouragement and belief can make the improbable possible. But we do not all have the blessing of a supportive friend or partner in our lives. Or do we?  Well, maybe we could.

There is one person who is with us every step of the way, from the cradle to the grave and who knows our story better than anyone else… and that is our self. We are never wholly alone, no matter how lonely we may feel; there is always a part of us that exists at a deeper level than the surface chatter of the mind. If we can free ourselves, even a little, from the chains of assumption and judgement that we have accepted from others, we can learn to believe in ourselves. And that makes so many things possible.

The Mystery Schools, from ancient Greece to modern schools like the Silent Eye, have always taught that we should learn to know ourselves. It is a common misconception that this simply means learning to know our own faults and weaknesses so that we can address them and make progress as human and spiritual beings. It also means learning to know and embrace our strengths, gifts and talents…celebrating our lives as whole and entire beings. Works in progress, whose faults are part of the unfinished learning process and whose gifts show a glimpse of the spark of true beauty that can be ignited within each of us.

Change can begin at any point in our lives by challenging the assumptions about ourselves that we have accepted over the years. Next time you say ‘I can’t do that…’, ask yourself ‘why not?’. Is there a practical reason… or do you ‘just’ believe that you cannot? Belief in yourself is a door that only you can open, and when you do, others will believe in you too. You may even find that they always did.

The courage of conviction…

‘They’ve got that completely the wrong way around.’ I almost winced as I read the article, completely disagreeing with the perspective that was being outlined. The basics were correct, I felt but there was something decidedly ‘off’ about the way it was being put across. I read on regardless, listening to the running commentary in my mind… then winced in good earnest. This time at me.

By what right did I think I could judge another person’s perspective? Anyone can challenge facts if they have better information, but this was not a factual piece; it was an article on an aspect of spirituality, which, by its very nature, deals with the unseen and unknown. I may have the right to disagree with a belief or an opinion, just as I have a right to my own perspective… but I have no right to judge another to be wrong on such a subject, no matter how deep my own convictions may run.

How can we know? None of us can prove there is anything beyond this realm. None of us can prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that anything exists beyond what we are experiencing right here, right now, with our own physical senses. And even that is debateable, subjective and at the mercy of quantum physicists. We cannot even be sure that we exist in the way that we think we do.

We accept that we are solid beings in a physical world where walls are impenetrable and water is wet, all the while knowing that there is more space between the particles that make up everything in the universe, than there is solid matter. Even though, theoretically, our atoms should be able to pass through walls, we don’t try to walk through them. Experience says it doesn’t work.

But we all know that there are things beyond what we are seeing. I know my sons are in their homes as I write. I know the dog is sleeping in the hallway and that the sun will rise in the morning. I cannot see any of these things, but I know them to be true. I have learned from experience, and such things are part of my image of the world that has been built over time. If I doubted that experiential reality, how could I move through the world?

When it comes to spirituality we are, by definition, dealing with things unseen and unprovable in any scientific way, yet as soon as we wonder whether there is a greater reality of some kind, we are looking at a plane of causation, something which affects and is an integral part of this reality.

We are faced with three ways we can go. There is scepticism, where we withhold judgement until and unless we find some reason to change our minds. There is belief, where we can choose to accept …or reject…a vision of reality put forward by others. Belief, on its own, implies that choice and choosing not to believe comes into that category. There is faith…trust, conviction, knowing…call it what you will. It may have, but does not require any religious affiliation or dogma, it transcends logic and simply settles on the heart.

Scepticism and belief can argue their corner. They are based on knowledge and reason. Faith is unreasonable, subjective, emotional, often illogical… and yet it can grow from both scepticism and belief. Faith ‘just knows’ and the conviction is so deep it permeates every aspect of your life and answers its every question.

And you cannot prove a thing.

You might very well be wrong.

The only ‘proof’ you can offer is how you live your life. How your convictions shape you and carry you through the trials and tribulations each new day can bring. And the trouble is that, regardless of the specifics of that faith, you are not alone. There are people whose convictions sustain them exactly as you are sustained… yet their path is different from yours and may not include faith at all.

So how can we judge another’s faith, belief or conviction when we cannot prove our own? As long at it follows some version of the Golden Rule and harms none, how can we say who is right and who is wrong?

All we can do is refuse the impulse to dismiss another’s belief, believe without seeking to impose our own perspective and accept that there is always a paradox… we can know with utter certainty, knowing that we might be wrong and that it is okay.

That, I think, is the true courage of conviction.

Walking the line…

“… so fear was originally there to help us survive.”
“Yep… and with not many sabre-tooth tigers roaming the suburbs, we found other things to fear. And fear is intimately linked to how we judge people.”
“How so?”

It was one of those early morning conversations over coffee and from the nature of fear we had progressed to how we unconsciously judge the people that we meet. It is all very well to say that we should not judge…but we do. At least to a certain degree. Sitting in moral judgement upon someone’s actions is a slightly different matter, but we do seem to be programmed to make judgements about the people who arrive in our lives. It comes from the same primitive survival instinct as fear and is part of the same process. If a hunter comes face to face with another spear-wielding man, that snap judgement would be the deciding factor; does he run from a foe, throw his own spear, or welcome a fellow hunter to the chase?

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Our need for such judgements may not be so acute these days, but the instinct remains. We just use it in a more abstract way. A new person arrives on the scene… a new colleague, perhaps… and an immediate reaction determines what we see as our best approach. How we judge them then determines, rightly or wrongly, what we expect of them too.

But how do we make that judgement? Against what measure are we holding them? We only have our own normality, our own world view, with which to work… and that, of necessity, becomes our median line. Some people will quickly climb high in our estimation, others will let us down.  People will either surpass our expectations or fall below them…and hopefully we can rejoice at the one and learn from the other.

The problem here is that if we let the uncontrolled ego have its way, by setting ourselves as the median line, we may also be setting ourselves in a position of unconscious superiority. If that happens, then everyone else starts at a disadvantage… the people we meet will start from a ‘lower’ place than that which the ego sees itself as occupying. This means that before anyone can begin to meet our expectations, they have a steep climb ahead of them before they can hope to meet us on an even playing field.

The higher our ego sets us on that scale, the lower are the chances of people fulfilling or exceeding our expectations. If someone does manage to climb above our median line, the chances are that the owner of a ‘superior’ ego, instead of applauding that success, will feel themselves weighed down by it… and look for ways in which they can bring that person back down to, or below, the median line of ‘normality’…at least in their own mind.

The ‘superior’ ego fears being overshadowed by the success of others and reacts to any inkling of such success with resentment and prejudice. The higher the other person is perceived to climb… and it may be no more than a perception… the more the ‘superior’ ego looks for them to fall. These are such destructive emotions that, while the other person continues with the normal ups and downs of life, embracing both successes and failures, the ‘superior’ ego finds itself on a slippery slope of its own creation.

We cannot abstain from judging altogether…it is an instinctive function of our safety mechanism. We should not have to lower our hopes for people either… for in trusting and hoping for their success we help ensure it. Imposing our expectations, though is a different matter… expectations breed disappointment.

Stickman, Handshake, Gun, Aiming, SmileWhat we can do is remember than our own median line is not a straight path, but meanders with every step we take, and we can fall or climb just as easily, and as often, as anyone else. No matter where we stand in terms of our social position, educational achievements, affiliations, beliefs or ethnicity, we are equal partners in the human family. Our median line should not be drawn by the ego, but from the one thing we all share… our humanity. We are each as fragile, as fallible, and as capable of reaching the heights as each other… and regardless of the judgements passed upon us, we share a gift of possibility that allows us to walk our own path.

Making assumptions

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                                           Image source: freehdw

It wasn’t much, in the greater scheme of things, but I was unaccountably angry. Not much I could do on the far end of a phone, but even so… the incident had hit a tender spot. It wasn’t even my story this time, but, like most people, I have been on the receiving end of it often enough and it never fails to ‘get my goat’. Even worse, I have been as guilty of it as anyone. It is a very difficult flaw to avoid, based, as it is, in some of our oldest instincts for survival.

“You should not judge a book by its cover”… or so the saying goes. In the world, of books, however, we all know that the cover is the first thing you see and the first thing likely to make you pick up a completely unknown tome. Scroll through an online bookstore and you will find yourself dismissing what may be excellent works, simply because the cover does not catch your eye or appeal. If we stop to think about it, we know exactly what we are doing… but we still do it, unconsciously passing judgement based solely on appearances.

Initially I imagine that the snap judgements we make, based largely on visual signals, was a safety mechanism. After all, who wants to get up close and personal with, say, a sabre-toothed tiger, before deciding it might not be very safe after all. You would want a bit of a head start before running, and the sooner you can judge a potential threat, the sooner you can run. We still use the same mechanism for safety today, judging the speed of cars before crossing a road, for example. The physical signals that keep us safe must be acted upon instantly, leaving little or no room for thought.

The mechanism has been extended to people too. There are other signals, some invisible like the sensitivity to olfactory messages so faint as to be undetectable and some are intangible and unquantifiable, like gut reaction and empathy. You usually know when you meet someone who will have an impact on your life, whether they ‘give you the creeps’ or you instantly warm to them. Eventually, your emotions become engaged at some level or another, beginning with reactive emotion, but open to the possibility of higher emotions, just as  unconscious reactions  can be informed by the conscious mind.

Those first, instantaneous judgements are almost involuntary reactions to stimuli perceived. They are made before we have time to bring knowledge, logic or experience to bear on the moment. We are not consciously responsible for the flags that are raised at such times. Where we do have a responsibility is when we then fail to step back and take a look at what we do next.

We are also responsible for those judgements made through prejudice. Often the prejudice itself goes unrecognised, disguised as something it is not, or is hidden beneath ‘good intentions’. It may have its roots in culture, era or personal background…and sometimes it stems from that overweening arrogance that simply feels itself superior to others. Most of the time, we don’t even realise we are doing it, but every time we do, it leads to dismissiveness, distrust or condescension at best.

At worst, it is an expression of racisim, sexism, ageism, classism, intellectual snobbery, disability discrimination… there is an endless list of ‘isms’ and terms for our negative judgements, and the sweeping, inclusive judgements that are allowed to blanket a whole section of the community in our eyes are the worst and most dangerous.

We never meet a community. We meet a person. Even if we are introduced to a whole assembly, we still meet each one as individuals. There is an instant where there is nothing else but that first contact between two people who know nothing at all of each other except what their senses can tell them. We will almost inevitably begin to categorise unconsciously and make certain broad assumptions about each other, based on our knowledge and experience of life, yet those assumptions are very often wide of the mark.

It is just as likely to be the ‘yob’ in scruffy denim and leather that helps a young mum with a pushchair onto a bus, rather than the guy in the business suit. The Rastafarian plumber who shows up to fix a leak is as likely to teach you the true beauty of the human soul as the preacher in his pulpit. It may well be the tramp to whom you give the price of breakfast who gives you the greater gift. And yes, those were lessons learned through experience and each has their own story.

I was angry when I took that phone call because of the assumptions that had been made based on how a person is automatically labelled in the mind of another. The assumptions had doubtless been made with the best of intentions too, but they were wrong, applicable only to the averages within a generic label, not to the individual concerned; a situation easily avoided by the simple expedient of getting to know the individual person beneath the all-encompassing label. Discrimination should be brought to judgement. It isn’t all that difficult to take a moment to look into someone’s eyes, maybe share a smile, and let them open the box of surprises that is another human soul.