The year has turned and
it looks a lot like this one.
The year has turned and
I want a
to open my arms and send out a
Whoever you are.
Wherever you are.
I wish you
in the year ahead.
in your mind and in your
whether you find it in
a cup of coffee or
a hug from a friend.
I wish you
today. Right now.
Tomorrow is a new day.
Wake with this
“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.”
“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
Last weekend, I listened to a Sam Harris podcast with Frank Ostaseski on death and dying. It led me to reflect on various experiences as well as grow curious about those of others. Feeling the need for human connection, I reached out to a friend to talk through this with me. As sometimes happens, people are not as responsive as we wish they’d be and I ended up largely considering these ideas alone:
What happens when you die?
Who and what have you lost?
What are you afraid of?
What do you wish you knew?
What are you glad you don’t know?
Asking myself these questions was a way of becoming recognizing the thoughts that underlie many of my actions and ideas. I thought a lot about Jewish traditions around death and mourning where the emphasis is first on never leaving the body and then on preventing the bereaved from retreating into solitude. In fact, the most important prayer recited for 11 months following the death of a parent, spouse, or child is only permitted to be said in the company of at least ten people.
As a kid, I reread the chapter on death and dying from Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul more times than I can count. Since then, I’ve been to funerals, cemeteries, calling hours, and shiva houses. I’ve experienced the deaths of relatives, family friends, peers, and former students. I don’t think death scares me, but I likely think about dying more than I realize. I think that’s true of all of us.
Once, a friend was getting ready to leave my apartment and I couldn’t help myself and asked, “What are you afraid of?”. We talked for four more hours.
I remember saying that I’m afraid of running out of time to tell people what I want them to know, to tell them how special they are and how much I love them. My friend’s advice to simply do just that has stayed with me since. It has guided the openness with which I have tried to form new relationships and reconnect with people from way back when.
But over time and for a variety of reasons, we lose people. We lose opportunities. We lose the chance to participate in something that matters to us or to engage with people who matter to us. We are sad about these losses. We cry for them. We fear them. We do not know how we will move on without them. We do not know what there is without them.
These losses are painful to us because we feel robbed by time.
What would we have done if we’d had the time?
I’m beginning to understand that maybe it’s not about time at all. Maybe it’s about regretting doing X or not doing Y. Maybe it’s about living fully and presently to avoid the regrets that come from “running out of time”. We can instead can allow ourselves to take chances and explore possibilities, and we can forgive ourselves and others for our doings or lack thereof. This requires living mindfully with an awareness that we can choose to leave nothing unsaid or undone. We can choose to embrace time and use it to spur us along, saying and doing what we wish to say and do.
Thinking about this just yesterday, I made a choice that was hard for me. I asked someone I care about for something I wanted. I got an answer that I didn’t like. And I walked away (more honestly, retreated to the gym) without regret because I hadn’t waited for anything. I hadn’t pretended to be okay when I wasn’t. I’m not left wondering. It’s a strange, new, fragile feeling that I’m actively working to maintain as a positive force rather than slipping into doubt and self-disparagement.
The podcast left me wondering why we so infrequently talk about these ideas – that we are sad when we lose people because of the regrets we have and the forgiveness we haven’t granted, either to ourselves or to others. As Ostaseski emphasized, we need to understand death by seeing it as part of life. As part of living. My meditation teacher reminds us each class that part of the Zen practice of meditation is a preparation for death. After listening to the podcast, I put The Tibetan Book of the Dead on hold at the library; I should have it in about six weeks.
And in the meantime, I think I’ll keep that strange, new feeling of an end without regret.
Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by a twenty-something teacher trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place