How true it is that our global community is diverse and has many groups within it. Cultures and individuals unique and varied in the ways we speak, cook, dress, make art, make love, make sense of the universe, educate our children, pray, play and grieve. There's an almost endless potential for intrigue, wonder, friendship, sharing and exploration of our differences. And yet how confusing and unsettling our differences can be when there is the kind of cultural confrontation that we saw in Paris last week. This painful and desperate collision between violent extremism and what we call liberal democracy, has left us traumatised and polarised by our differences. I sit here wondering whether this polarisation – this heightened and rigid 'us against them, me against you' – is in any way reconcilable.
You may belong to a group that believes religion is outdated and dangerous. Perhaps you are with those who feel offended or disrespected by cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. Perhaps you feel outraged by the public flogging of jailed blogger Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia. You may group yourself with those who think that homosexuality is evil and a route to hell, or that women should cover their faces in public. I don't believe that it is a mistake to be in opposition to another – I may say, “Je suis Charlie” while you may say, “Je ne suis pas Charlie”. We must surely honour our own positions, stand strongly in them and say to each other, “I am angry and offended when I see your cartoons” or “I am scared and sickened by you killing in the name of religion”.
But at some point we have to be prepared to investigate and look at our situation in ways that may be new for us. How can we actually locate the intolerance that is the cause of so much pain and anguish? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the writer, long time prisoner and outspoken critic of Soviet totalitarianism, asks us to look at things differently:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” (The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956)
Solzhenitsyn is saying that the challenge we face is within us, because the world is within us. The world of love, compassion, hatred and intolerance is in our own belly, head and chest, our own flesh. He asks us to look for resolution right here in the middle of our life by owning our violence, bigotry, prejudice and cruelty. And by awakening our own patience, listening, tolerance and kindness. I understand this challenge as being the work of awareness.
Awareness practice supports the understanding that our current way of seeing ourselves and the world is changeable and born of our present situation. Awareness work helps us sense that we are more than our views and opinions. When we are aware, then we are available to know that however violent and intolerant another is, they are more than their intolerance and violence. People are not ultimately just violent and hateful. We change. And to one extent or another we are each a product of our respective time, culture and situation. If we are willing to do this work then I believe we can stop seeing the actions of others as the primary cause of what we feel.
If we are willing to do this work then we can legitimately ask our politicians and our religious leaders to practice tolerance because we have some understanding of what we are asking of them. With awareness, we can understand that whatever different groups we find ourselves in, there is one that we all also share – Humanity. Each of us in this group is subject to fear, anxiety, confusion and stress, and we all, in our own ways, seek fulfilment, joy and even peace.
Article also appears on Conscious 2