Face Value

Maybe no one really seems to be the person that they mean to be.

Conor Oberst

The other day my coworker paid me a compliment that took me by surprise. She told me that she envies the way I seem so calm and present all the time. She said I come off as truly content and mindful. Part of me literally cannot believe this is really the way that she sees me. Perhaps she is just telling me what she thinks I want to hear? I don’t know why she would bother though. The comment seemed to come out of no where.

Although I already think about it often, this really emphasized the idea that my perception of people and their perceptions about themselves are quite likely extremely different. I never feel calm and content or that I’m able to enjoy the present moment. I’m exceptionally pleased that I may come off that way to people, but it’s hard to wrap my head around how that could be. Inside I am in a near constant state of fear, anxiety, and agitation. Often I am even ruminating on thoughts of bitterness and anger, playing the victim in my own inner story.

My coworker’s comment made me realize just how easily we become consumed by the image we imagine of ourselves, that we forget others may not view us in the same way. We’re so familiar with the reoccurring thoughts and patterns in our own minds that we forget others have no awareness of them. In the same way, it’s easy to forget that the information we have to work with on the surface isn’t necessarily giving us an accurate understanding of the full complexity of another person.

With the limited information we have, it’s easy to just write someone off as an asshole or an idiot. However, if I reflected on my own actions day to day from an outsider’s perspective, I’d likely label myself in this hasty, inaccurate, dismissive way just as easily. It’s uncomfortable to see someone doing something that we think is inconsiderate or irrational and just let it go with the acknowledgement that we don’t (nor can we ever) know the full story. It’s easier to construct a story to tell ourselves with the small pieces of information we do have.

As a social worker, I hear all kinds of crazy circumstances that people deal with every day. I really couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried. With that in mind, you’d think it would be easier for me to give someone the benefit of the doubt and assume they have a lot going on and reasons for behaving the way that they do. On the contrary, I still find myself constantly falling into the trap of cynicism and judgement..

Another helpful way to think about this is to consider that, at least in my experience, I am able to find redeeming qualities in just about everyone that I get to know on more than a surface level. When you only see a handful of moments in a persons life, it is much simpler to judge them harshly. The same tendencies in someone we know are more palatable to us than in someone we don’t know. I believe this is because we are able to weigh them against all of the positive qualities of the person we know, whereas we have no other points of reference for the person that we don’t.

On the flip side of this, my interaction with my coworker reminded me just how silly it is to worry about what other people might be thinking about me. I spend a great deal of time worrying about how I come off to other people. I’m terrified that they will think of me in the same harsh, unforgiving manner that I think of myself. While that might be true, it may also be true that they think more highly of me than I think of myself. The point is that I can never know for sure, nor can I hope to precisely shape the way another person thinks of me intentionally. It’s best to just express myself as I see fit in the moment and not worry about the rest.

Diversity

Up until a few years ago I was among the group of people that thought: All cops are bad. All cops are fascists’, class traitors, bullies, white supremacist’s, etc. Then I started working at my new job. Now I work closely with child protective services and the local police and sheriff’s offices. I even felt uncomfortable about that at first. I was worried I’d accidentally say something to get myself in trouble. I was worried they would be complete assholes, sexists, victim blamers. I was worried they’d find out I’m a liberal, yoga teaching, vegan and mock me or even despise me.

To my surprise, working with the police was not the experience I was expecting at all. It’s honestly left me pretty conflicted about where I stand in regard to law enforcement. As a child, we’re taught that cops are the good guys. They’re here to protect us and help us. Then we become teenagers and cops are the enemy. Now I’m a young adult and I’ve come full circle. Cops are just people. Some are good, some are bad, most are a complex mixture of the two just like we all are.

My sister is still very much in the mindset that all cops should be hated. To her, they are still all racists and monsters. She won’t even listen to me talk if the story involves one of my new cop friends. Which saddens me, because a lot of these guys are just that, my friends. Never in a million years would I have thought I’d ever say that. But I genuinely love interacting with a lot of the officers we work with. They are kind, funny, intelligent people. I genuinely value all that they do to help the children that we meet here. I see how much these cases affect them. I see the big, muscly, tattooed, bald cop tearing up at the story a little girl tells. I see how hard he works to put her rapist behind bars. He shows me pictures of his daughter’s pet rabbit, who loves him. Once he even tried to set me up with his son, and I was hopeful that it may work out and he would be my father in law some day. That’s how much I respect and admire this man!

The point I’m trying to make here isn’t that cops are good and we should all love the cops. Obviously, as we see on the news every day, there are cops killing innocent people for no reason all over the country. In no way am I trying to minimize that or make excuses for it. I’m just trying to highlight the importance of personally getting to know people from different groups before judging them. Just like I was able to be critical of all cops until I personally met some, people that don’t know any individuals of a certain minority group are far more easily able to lump them all together in harmful stereotypes. It’s nearly impossible to generalize about a group of people when you know and work with members of said group.

Ignorance breeds hatred. We fear what we don’t understand. Rather than sit with the fact that we don’t know much about different cultures and ethnicities, we prefer to pigeon hole them through generalizations. I hear a lot of talk about the value and importance of diversity, but I don’t often hear any explanation as to why this is so essential to society. I think my own experience has taught me that. And I am so grateful that I’ve had this chance to learn something so important.

It may be easy to see the harmful biases that others hold, but we can’t control the way the people around us view the world. Perhaps it’s more important for us to look inward. No one is free from biases and prejudice. Some are certainly more harmful and systemic than others, but nonetheless we’ve all got them. Not only do these judgements hurt others, but they hurt the ones who are doing the judging as well. What a crime it is to close ourselves off from the vast complexity of the world by trying to shove everything and everyone into neat little boxes. Keep your heart and mind open. Don’t decide who other people are, let them show you.

The Difference Between Complacency & Surrender

By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (1.33)

During my yoga teacher training, we spent a lot of time discussing yoga philosophy. I have come to believe that the study and practical application of the wisdom within ancient texts such as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are perhaps even more important than the physical practice of asanas. I have no doubt that the adherence to these guiding principles would produce an idyllic life with the least amount of suffering. However, putting these teachings into practice is much easier said than done.

The sutra I quoted above is one that has been particularly challenging for me. I am fully on board right up until the words “disregard toward the wicked.” I feel a strong aversion to this idea in the pit of my stomach when I consider it. I am someone who has a strong sense of justice and can be quite inflexible in that regard.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Edmund Burke

Multiple people have said to me, “you have the courage of your convictions.” This is something I’ve always taken pride in. It is hard for me not to speak out and take action against things that I view as wrong, even to my own detriment at times. I used to make myself sick, fighting with people about the moral obligation of veganism and exposing the insidious effects of religion on society. I could see that I wasn’t changing anyone’s mind. I was quite possibly just causing many to dig their heels in deeper. Yet I didn’t see any other option but to keep fighting. I felt each moment of silence was a moment of consent, of complacency.

I feel a well of indignation rise up within me whenever I am confronted with a situation or belief system I am morally opposed to. I have also been told by several people that I have a hard time “biting my tongue.” Something I am often embarrassed by.

Knowing this about me, you may better understand why I have agonized over accepting this particular sutra. What I’ve come to learn over the years is that there is a fine line between complacency and surrender. But there is still a difference. It is possible to accept something without agreeing with it, consenting to it, or supporting it. It is sometimes necessary to just allow, to surrender. Because there you will find peace. There you will find the clarity of mind to move forward in the most productive way. To stop shooting yourself in the foot with your outrage.

“Disregard toward the wicked” for me isn’t about simply ignoring the evils of our world. It’s about not letting that wickedness taint your heart. We mustn’t respond to these things with hardness and hatred. We must cultivate an indifference. An indifference that allows us to acknowledge all aspects of existence without judgement. In this way we can avoid inflicting unnecessary suffering upon ourselves and others. Creating more suffering does no one any good. It only serves to cloud your mind and heart. Ultimately hurting whatever cause you feel the need to fight for.

This doesn’t mean you have to surrender your ideals or your beliefs. It simply means surrendering to the fact that you can’t control this world. Accepting that. And carrying on. Returning your focus within, to the only place where you can make a true difference. In this way I have finally been able to find surrender without shame.