Antisemitism Among the Internationally Minded

“How much is a taxi to the airport? I have to pay it myself. My school doesn’t give me a per diem.”
“Oh that’s too bad. Why not?”
“It’s a Jewish school so they’re stingy.”
“Hey!”
“Well that’s how they make all their money.”

And then we made eye contact and she looked away.

My only contribution to this conversation was the interjection, “Hey!”. I’m not sure whether it was enough. I’m never sure.


I’ve spent the last three days at an IB professional development workshop for the DP Psychology course that I teach. People came from all over – Singapore, Indonesia, China, Nepal, India, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Abu Dhabi were represented among 24 psychology teachers. And that’s just where they teach now; where they’re from is a completely different list.

Context is important here. What I like most about the IB, and what gives me legs to stand on when discussing controversial topics, is its mission:

The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect. . . .
These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right. (emphasis added)

To this end, the IB highlights international-mindedness throughout its programs, though the way this actually looks is heavily discussed and debated. The point, however, is that this is who we’re supposed to be as an IB community. We’re supposed to be internationally minded, emphasize intercultural understanding and respect, and accept difference.

I’ve seen antisemitism all over the world and it no longer surprises me. But I was taken aback to see it in a woman about my age, also a traveler, who teaches a psychology course that includes a sociocultural unit. She’s obviously frustrated at having to pay for what was likely a required workshop, so I’m not questioning that. Frustration is why she made the claim – we blame others when things that we don’t like happen to us. My question is why the claim was antisemitic in the first place.

Since she teaches at a Jewish school, she knows more than nothing about Judaism and she knows Jewish people. She likely has Jewish friends, even if they’re friends just at work. This means that I can’t use ignorance as an explanation, which is usually the excuse that I give people. Ignorance is lack of knowledge or lack of information and that’s clearly not the case.

As a teacher of psychology, she is familiar with Henri Tajfel’s work on social identity theory, which, ironically enough, stems from his experiences of persecution during the Holocaust. In short, we compare ourselves to others and categorize ourselves into groups in order to boost our self-esteem. “We” are the in-group and “they” are the out-group. “They” are this and “we” are not. “We” do this and “they” do not. Etc.

Much of our group categorization is unconscious. We are not necessarily aware when this happens because the brain naturally categorizes things in order to simplify and streamline our thinking. As a teacher of psychology, she knows about cognitive biases, which are mental shortcuts that the brain uses to make sense of the world around us. We’d never be able to make any sort of decision if the brain first had to process every possible option.

Stereotypes are also linked to implicit associations, generalizations that the brain makes based on patterns. Again, we don’t realize this is happening. Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test, which I do with my students, can be enlightening. Sometimes these associations, or biases, have little impact on our interactions with others but sometimes they can be quite significant. As I discuss with my students, having implicit biases is normal. Checking yourself when you come to a snap judgement is what it means to be mindful before acting.


To summarize, it is troubling to me that a psychology teacher in a global program with a mission to value international-mindedness, intercultural understanding and respect, and acceptance of difference made an antisemitic comment. I don’t have an explanation for this teacher. She should know and teach everything I’ve just described. And if she hasn’t been doing that, we just spent three days discussing it. She should understand this in her own life and adjust accordingly. And maybe she will.

So why the antisemitic comment? The nagging voice in my head says that some people are just antisemitic. Some people are just racist, biased, discriminatory, prejudicial, xenophobic even when they know better. Sometimes this comes from fear or uncertainty. Sometimes this comes from prior negative experience. (As one of my friends would say, “Sounds like textbook human.”)

Haven’t an explanation doesn’t rectify or excuse the behavior, but perhaps it can suggest ways that allow us to respond constructively. And perhaps, since this woman didn’t check herself but was ultimately checked, this particular comment can be a learning experience.

It is heartening that no one else in the room engaged with her comment at all. The conversation moved on immediately, which is a perfectly appropriate response once someone speaks out and the other backs down. It seems plausible that most people in the room recognized the bias, prejudice, and stereotype behind this comment and knew it to be wrong. In light of that, maybe we’re doing okay at building a better, more peaceful world.

But in light of that, we cannot pretend the work is over.

Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace. – Amelia Earhart

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An olive tree in Neot Kedumim, Israel – March 2017

Learning to Meditate

One
The unpleasant feeling of being lonely hit me really hard kind of out of nowhere when I was walking home from the MRT. And then I thought about Sam Harris’s meditation lesson from yesterday: “That which is aware of sadness is not sad. That which is aware of fear is not afraid.” As soon as I thought about that, and each time I went back to it in between episodes of masochism resulting from loneliness, the feeling went away. For a fleeting moment, but it went away.

And that amazed me because that, I think, is what it means to let the ego dissolve. Sadness is a sensation but I am not sad because there’s no I. Interesting.

Two
Tonight’s meditation about emotion, day twelve, came at a good time. Sam prompted recall of a situation that was unpleasant – something to leave you sad or anxious or upset in some way. Following his cues, the point was to notice first the thought itself and then where that unpleasant feeling lies in the body, giving rise to the emotion that we’d started with.

Sam went through the exercise three times, twice with situations that bring about negative emotions and once with a situation bringing about positive emotions. He then talked about emotions as just “patterns of energy” and about how powerful it is to recognize emotions in this way. Just energy in the body, like any other feeling. Sam used knee pain as an example and I’ll follow suit because it worked. It seems the idea is to see “the feeling of sadness” in the same way as “my knee is sore” but not let the self become the sadness anymore than the self becomes the sore knee, which is not at all.

During tonight’s meditation, as always, I felt the negative emotions in my chest. When I’m anxious, afraid, or sad, my chest tightens and it’s difficult to breathe. At least once during the meditation exercise I gasped and opened my eyes, certain I was going to cry. But when Sam prompted thinking about something positive, I felt the same clench in my chest. And it rose into my throat just like tears do, but this time the feeling manifested as what I usually call “a bubble of joy”. It was so interesting to observe the same sensation and label it with a different emotion.

At the same time, though, I also started to wonder what a person becomes without deep feelings. But it’s not a lack of deep feelings, is it? It’s a lack of attachment to them during a full experience of them. The purpose of meditation is to notice whatever it is I’m actually noticing. I realize this now, writing, but at the time I worried a little, worried just for a fleeting moment, about becoming an empty shell, something not quite human.

But now, reflecting, I realize that’s not it at all. Instead it’s being able to recognize what’s there with an open mind instead of judgement and have the experience instead of letting it pass by.

Three
With tonight’s meditation experience, I thought in a different light about an earlier conversation with a friend that really upset me. I was talking about how frustrating it is to want something that has eluded me and my friend asked if I ever meditated on letting go or living without. My immediate response internally was defensive outrage, but tonight it struck me that perhaps I can separate the feeling of wanting from that which is I. And if the feeling is just a feeling and the conscious mind is what processes the feeling, there’s no need to attach any of it to I at all. Because I is just a construction of the mind. But the point is, “I can walk away from the feeling because the feeling isn’t me.”

I’m not there yet. But I think that’s the point.

Four
I’ve been finding it helpful to focus on sound. Sound comes in and out of conscious awareness and there’s nothing we do to make that happen. It’s just there and then it isn’t.

It’s the same for thoughts, though harder to grasp because I don’t find myself beginning to have a thought; rather, I find myself when I’m already lost in them. But it’s the same thing. Thoughts just appear. Like sounds. We notice them and then they’re gone, too, and we don’t notice them anymore.

Five
Watching my emotions change over the last week has been really interesting. As best as I can, I’ve tried to step outside of myself and observe what I’m feeling rather than just letting it swallow me.

I went to the climbing gym twice this weekend because I disappear when climbing. As a friend explained once, “There’s no room for ego up there.” It’s easy to lose myself in my own head when I’m running but not so easy at dance or doing yoga or on the climbing wall. I’ve been trying to engage in ways that let me spend less time lost in thought, an experiment to see what happens.

And so far, I’m not too sure.

Six
I had a conversation today that indicated ego is alive and well. Frustration for other reasons bubbled up and got the better of me and I was defensive instead of open-minded. As I teach my psychology students, we are cognitive misers and it’s less taxing to rely on emotion than reason. Knowing the traps doesn’t mean immunity from falling into them.

I didn’t realize this conversation was still bothering me when I sat down to meditate tonight, day nineteen. But as soon as I turned my attention to the breath, I noticed an elevated heart rate even though I was breathing deeply without effort. For several minutes, I couldn’t slow my heart down even though I guessed its cause. So I observed that and tried not to judge it.

While I’ve been familiar with loving-kindness meditation for a while, Sam’s inclusion of it tonight was most welcome. In its full form, you begin thinking about someone close to you and wishing them well and then expanding the well-wishing, over the course of several stages, to the whole world. Tonight’s meditation centered on just one person.

I thought about a very dear friend. And that’s when I felt my heart rate slow down. I felt better turning my focus towards another person and wishing happiness, which really means sending pure love.

May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you be peaceful.

Mindfulness is a journey to travel, a journey without signposts and without end. But even as a novice along the journey, I’ve had moments of utter simplicity where I’m left stunned by what is sometimes so easy and other times so challenging.

To be mindful is to be aware. Aware of what we see, hear, and think. It is to experience. It is to look outward and take in with an awareness of what we’re doing instead of just letting it happen. It sounds like doing nothing. But as I’m learning, it’s actually doing quite a lot.

Newport Beach
Newport Beach, California – December 2016

On Being Busy

According to Merriam-Webster, my dictionary of choice since reading Kory Stamper‘s clever, hilarious Word by Word, the word “busy” has five definitions:

1a. engaged in action
1b. being in use
2. full of activity
3. foolishly or intrusively active
4. full of distracting detail

At my school, there’s an obsession with being busy. People are constantly talking about how busy they are and that they’re busy all the time. Yes, there’s a lot going on. Yes, we are pulled in multiple directions. Yes, sometimes lunch is skipped or rushed or postponed until later. Yes, many people come in early, stay late, and work weekends. Busy. Sure.

But there are also periods of the year or even times of the week that are less busy. There are times when we sit around and chat, times when lunch is leisurely, times when a few people take it upon themselves to decorate the department office. There are times when we check personal email, read the news, scroll through Facebook, or even write blog posts. Not as busy.

In many ways, I think claiming that we’re busy is an excuse. It gives us something to hide behind when we’re tired, when we don’t want to move onto the next thing, when we’re overwhelmed for some other reason. It gives us an instant connection with others while simultaneously absolving us (or so we think) for being unfriendly or impolite. After all, we’re in a rush. We’re busy.

I don’t quite buy that. As one of my colleagues says, “We wear busy as a badge – and we need to stop.”

Self-Worth
For many people I work with, being busy seems like a goal. To those people, if you’re clearly working harder than others, that says something about you. If you’re not busy, you’re clearly not contributing as much as the next person. Being busy gives a purpose to the work being done and therefore meaning to your job. And to be clear, I’m not talking about people who are legitimately working steadily for long periods of time. I’m talking about people who are “always busy” . . . but never seem to do anything important or always seem behind.

Avoidance
Claiming that we’re busy is also sometimes a way of avoiding the things that we actually have to do, or things we know we should do but aren’t quite ready to face. It’s easy to make excuses when we’re “already busy” doing something else, which only makes it more challenging to do the things we need to do. And because “I’m busy” is an excuse our society has decided is acceptable, we give ourselves excuses to procrastinate (which is something we decry for different reasons, funnily enough). We can avoid doing things we don’t want to do because we’re busy, which only makes them harder when we can’t avoid them anymore.

Excuses
I know several people, and I’m sure you can think of a few, who use being busy as an excuse to avoid difficult conversations. We can avoid asking others how they are. We can avoid addressing problems that have come up in our relationships. We tell ourselves, and perhaps also tell others, that everything will settle back down when we’re not so busy and besides, we’re too busy right now to deal with that. These excuses become patterns. They become the behavior itself. They act as barriers to things that really matter and they can be harmful.

Alternatives
We don’t have to be so busy.

We also don’t have to claim that we’re so busy. Because much of the time, we’re probably not. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We don’t actually like, being busy – remember?

We can choose differently, as Leo Babauta writes on his excellent blog zen habits. We can choose to slow down, to simplify, to cultivate a sense of contentment. While I encourage a read of the whole post, these are they key ideas of what he says:

Slowing down is about pausing in the middle of the rush. Taking a breath. Creating a little space. Reflecting on what we’re doing. Finding a little mindfulness, being present with our bodies, breath and surroundings. . . .

This is what it means to simplify. Picking one thing (even if it’s just answering one of those emails that have been sitting in your inbox for a week), and then letting go of everything else. Letting this one thing be enough, for right now. Letting it be everything. . . .

What does it mean for this “one thing” to be enough? It means acknowledging that it’s impossible to do everything on your list, impossible to get everything done. So you have to focus on one thing, and let that be enough.

These are alternatives to being busy that I think are valuable, energizing, and far healthier than just rushing from this thing to the next thing and back again.

Slowing down is what lets us experience our lives rather than just letting them pass by.

Simplifying is what allows us to prioritize and do one thing well instead of several things poorly.

Cultivating a sense of contentment is being satisfied with accomplishing the one thing.

Wouldn’t that be better?

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Starrucca, Pennsylvania – September 2016

Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by a twenty-something teacher trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place