Loving yourself gives you the courage to look deeply into who and what you are, and looking deeply into who and what you are reveals the beauty worthy of love. Loving another human being takes this insight and expands it to include at least one other person. For some, perhaps most, loving another is easier than loving themselves.
But now you have to expand further, to “center” yourself in that loving space so that your boundaries expand. In fact, the greater your “centeredness” the greater the expansion. The Koisan belief in “Num”: the single soul that inhabits all human bodies, speaks to this. And this, the attribution of equal humanity to all, is the first thing thrown out the window in times of stress. Listen to the political discussions and ask if people on one side truly believe their political opponents are, on average, as decent and intelligent as their political allies. It isn’t enough to say “we see things differently”. It must be “you are wrong” or even “you are awful” (or: “deplorable”, anyone?)
This is the core of racism as well: my definition is clear and sharp: the attribution of differential worth or capacity based on race or ethnicity. Not “preference”, which is tribalism. Not “to hate the other” which would be various forms of bigotry. And not “the ability to leverage power against” which would be the institutional version of that position. No, my definition excuses no one, and has been hugely useful in teasing aside excuses, as well as revealing damage incurred over multiple generations.
Why? Because the power of believing you CAN and SHOULD achieve can be damaged on multiple levels:
- You can be denied opportunity, and therefore lose hope.
- You can be actively discouraged with pain and therefore lose hope.
- You can be raised by parents or grandparents who have been damaged by their life experiences, and therefore never HAVE hope.
- You can be programmed by social mythology: television, film, The News to see those who “look like you” to be less capable or less “permitted” to succeed, and therefore lose hope.
Remember the “MAGIC formula”? Magic = Action X Gratitude X Intent X Conviction? Get a “zero” in any category and you flatline.
Well, if your actions are stifled…if you feel you have little to be grateful for…if everyone around you tells you your Intents are unrealistic…or if you have no deep faith that your efforts will bring you greater pleasure than pain…you flatline.
I was recently asked how I reconcile my own conviction that we can create our own lives with the belief that history (such as slavery and its aftermath) can control our results.
It’s easy: most people are asleep. They are programmed from childhood by parents, society, and experiences, and the beliefs you are given prior to puberty have to be blasted out with dynamite.
My mother BROKE HERSELF on the wheel of programming me to wake up, even though she herself was trapped. Played endless tapes and records of self-improvement books that took seed in me even though she roiled sleepless with nightmares, and foamed with rage and pain that her life would have been better had she not had dark-skinned children who kept her from “passing for white.”
And that foundation, that programming, that early gift she gave me at the cost of her own happiness, made all the difference. The average person in the average context given average resources will get average results. Teach that average person to seek extraordinary resources that teach them to exert extraordinary effort, and they will get above-average results.
Then, of course, comes The Great Loneliness. We need Tribe, you see. We can’t be “too different” or we won’t have protection, become targets. So if you are part of a damaged social unit, and begin to excel, you are alone. If I’d wanted to be a doctor or lawyer, I’d have found “tribes” of similarly inclined people to join with…and plenty of women who understood that path and would have had confidence that my efforts would lead to success, and therefore be willing to cast their lot with me.
That didn’t happen. I was too strange. Too alien. And that put me at risk of being the Odd Sock, the lame gazelle, a target for bullying in junior high, and a social outcast by high school. Anyone who wonders why I found my way to Martial Arts by my senior year in high school need only look at this reality: no tribe from either the internal (black) community or the external (white) community. I either had to be strong, or my belief (programmed by my mother and reinforced by media and history) was that I would be killed.
Anyone who wants to know how I became so calculating about how sexual relationships work, the “Beauty-Power” exchange, need only look at this rejection. The women I was attracted to weren’t attracted to me. I saw that the greater the level of socially-agreed upon beauty, the higher the level of socially-agreed upon power that woman sought in her men. Countless examples of this, such that exceptions were the stuff of farcical comedy. At that point I could take the Weenie approach and whine, or simply say: “oh. O.K. I’ll be powerful, then.” I chose the second route, squashing any sense of “It’s not faaaair!!” It WAS fair. Why shouldn’t every human being make the best trade they can for what they want in life? It only made sense, once I stopped listening to my wounded ego.
The same process with the racial issue. It was obvious to me that the same efforts, over the same time, with the same energy, would get me fewer results than if I’d been born white. Made sense: every tribe offers advantages to their other members, whether that tribe is defined by gender, religion, politics, avocation, or whatever. Just human nature. I could either resent that and let it stop me, or find a way to move forward. I resented it AND moved forward.
I fought my way through these things, always seeking new resources, always fighting, always terrified I couldn’t reach my dreams, filling my house with books on accomplishment, going to every seminar I could find, studying with any teacher who would accept me, crying myself to sleep, waking up in fear, unable to stop, tired of slogging forward…
And then finally hit the level where all my work started paying off. Found a tribe of people who appreciated my accomplishments (both martial and in writing) and had some protection, and some access to women who appreciated the kind of power I had created in my life.
I remember being at a party some twenty-five years ago. Fannish party. I’d published a few books, and was feeling that, at last, I had some sense of how hard and focused I’d have to work to reach my goals, and was busy installing them at Unconscious Competence. At this party, I listened to a couple of unpublished writers, white guys, complaining about how awful the publishing industry was, the Philistines who controlled the purses, the terrible monsters who kept their brilliance from seeing the light. I did what I usually did: tried to offer some comfort, some advice, a perspective on the way to channel their hopes and dreams and energies to accomplish their dreams.
And they just waved their hands at me: “oh, it looks good to YOU, with all your advantages, in your ivory tower…” and I was stunned. It was a real WTF moment. Did they BELIEVE that?
And in the years since, I’ve seen people overcoming various obstacles of poverty, gender, disability, and so forth, and learned a reality: those obstacles cost you. REALLY cost you. But once you accomplish, people don’t want to believe what you’ve been through, and will assume you were born with a silver spoon.
The first time I heard someone say: “I wish I’d been born black. All those Affirmative Action advantages. I’d have gone so much further…” I thought that was the most ignorant comment I’d ever heard, just dripping with racist implications. Now I understand it’s just human nature.
And when I hear someone say: “I don’t understand how you can believe in individual will and effort but simultaneously believe that history influences our results” I just think: most people are asleep to their potential, and so get the average results of their immediate environment. And most people are just as asleep to their advantages.
The one creates a tragedy of lost lives. The other creates a tragedy of contempt, misunderstanding, and self-righteous blindness.
Yes, you can be born into disadvantage and still achieve. But stories of those who do so are told BECAUSE they are uncommon. You can be born into great wealth and power and fail. But stories of those who take such falls are told BECAUSE they are uncommon. Most people remain in the social tissue into which they were born.
What can you do if you are in such a disadvantaged tissue? Wake up. Find role models of those who excelled. In 99.9% of cases they found role models, coaches, mentors who could provide a road map. They suffered and stressed and dealt with loneliness and fatigue while others were partying. They fell and got up and fell and got up. FOLLOW THE HERO’S JOURNEY, or another pattern you can believe in with all your heart, because you will be spit on and threatened and warned and beaten down, and you will have to find a way to keep going.
And then…when you arrive? People will tell you the obstacles you faced were illusions. That you are simply “different”. That anyone, even without a mother like mine, without teachers like Steve Muhammad and Larry Niven, could have done the same. And you’ll want to scream, or hit them. Do neither.
Instead, understand that this is just the human condition. We all have advantages and disadvantages, the degree of which can probably measured by looking at average results within the group. Acknowledge any advantage you had, give thanks for them, have compassion for those who didn’t: they are doing the best they can with the resources they have. STAY AWAKE.
And…let your light shine. Be a role model of possibility. Help two people to the Light.
And…stay awake, no matter how seductive the whisper to “go to sleep. Go to sleep. You are successful because you are simply better…those less successful are just less innately capable…they LIKE their pain…go to sleep…”
The monsters, the ones who actively feed on the pain, really love it that most people can’t wait to go to sleep. And those of us committed to staying awake will always be tested. Speak your truth. Be strong, or the children are not safe. Be vigilant, or the monsters will drain the sleepers, and they will never awaken.
Understand human beings, our history and psychology and sociology without guilt, blame, or shame. That is a doorway to wisdom.
(If you would like to learn more about how the Hero’s Journey applies to our lives, especially our storytelling, the Lifewriting workshop will open again in February. You can get on the waiting list at: http://www.lifewrite.com)