Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
from Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold
For many years, my family and I have been avid hikers in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The social norm is to greet each hiker you pass on the trail. Very few violate this norm and there are good reasons for it. As we all are meeting the challenge of the mountain, feelings of connectedness to our fellow human beings and something bigger beyond us come naturally.
Not so in other situations. Recently I’ve been traveling and each week spending one night in the same small hotel. Each morning the hotel serves a continental breakfast in a small room. You have to go out of your way to not greet those who arrive for breakfast at the same time as you. To not smile or say hello is far more awkward, but more than a few guests do exactly that.
As Matthew Arnold writes, often there is not joy or love or light in the world. Few of us escape suffering in our life. Longfellow wrote, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
All of this has very practical implications. Too often we treat with indifference those whose paths we cross. Too often we see those we disagree with as stupid or as evil. Firms that make profits are viewed as evil by whole segments of society. Supporters of political candidates are viewed by supporters of other candidates as stupid. Citizens of other countries are somehow different and not as worthy as we are.
No doubt, some individuals act with viciousness and others go through life not cultivating their mind. Nevertheless, is it likely that an entire group of people is evil or stupid?
Consider TSA (Transport Security Administration) agents. In general, they have little training, experience, or education. TSA policies, it can be argued, inconvenience all of us and do little if anything to increase security at airports.
Nevertheless, while challenging TSA policies, should scorn be heaped on frontline agents? Traveling each week as I do, I have decided to opt out of airport scanners. The results of that choice have been surprising—given the news reports of unpleasant experiences, I was more than apprehensive about opting out.
Each week as I approach the security lines, I harbor no ill will toward the TSA agents. As we all are, they are simply playing their hand in life the best they know. Given the economy, I don’t blame them for accepting relatively high paying jobs that require little training or education.
So far, each time I have opted out, my passage through security is delayed no more than a couple of minutes, the TSA agents have been courteous, and their pat downs, although not pleasant, have been far less aggressive than I had feared.
Is there a connection between my recognition of their humanity and their recognition (within the confines of their job) of mine? In my mind, I have no doubt there is a connection.
I occasionally get an email written in an accusatory tone: A student doesn’t like this or that and makes some demand. If an email provokes an internal reaction in me, I let it sit for a while before responding. If I were a TSA agent, I wouldn’t have the luxury of walking away from a belligerent passenger.
I remain opposed to TSA procedures. Yet my experience in life has taught me this—our experience of the humanity of others bubbles up like a cork to the surface if we allow it to. When we do not sense our connectedness it must be that in our thinking we are actively suppressing it. We must justify our decision to deny our connectedness by rehearsing our perceptions of flaws in others.
Such thinking that suppresses our sense of connectedness is destructive. On a personal level, we experience less than satisfactory encounters: a commute in heavy traffic, a call to a customer service representative, these ordinary interactions often bring frustration. Such frustration is aggravated by our perceptions of those who play a part in the story of our day. As the Arbinger Institute puts it, “The more I become consumed by how my own needs aren’t being met, the larger those needs seem, until I numb myself to the needs of others.”
But suppressing our sense of connectedness is far more destructive than the personal inconveniences it brings us. Through the political system, we demand that others subsidize and support us. We threaten trade wars with other countries because we see their economic well-being as less important than our own. We threaten war with other countries in part because they oppose our hegemony.
Arnold provides the beginnings of an antidote: “Let us be true to one another.” Being true to another begins with recognizing our connectedness: we all are part of something bigger beyond our differences.