Don't Box Me In!

Editorial - by Diane Benge

 

Unlike the stereotypical woman of American situation comedies I am not one who likes to frequent the mall, in fact only necessity drags me there. On such occasions I am far more likely to be engaged in watching the people milling around than I am to be concerned with what is in shop windows.

I always find it enormously satisfying when in a crowd to observe the ordinariness of folk. The people at the mall are not like the people on television. They do not have faces like those which smile out from the glossy magazine covers on news stands. They are real. They wander by absorbed in thought or deep in conversation. They wait in frustration while a slow toddler catches up. Some shuffle, some chew gum, some hurry, some dawdle. Few are elegant, hardly any are gorgeous and many are pleasantly overweight. As Paul Holmes would say, "those were our people today".

There is something reassuring in the reminder that other people are 'just like us'. But this is only one side of a two-sided coin. Although they may seem to be so similar to us, each person has an entirely individual face, fingerprint and way of looking at the world. Like the bumper sticker says: "Always remember you're unique. Just like everyone else . . . ". There are two truths. We are both very much like each other, and yet, individually unique.

Holding these two truths in tension is an important skill to develop. Without it, we fall into the bad habit of putting people in boxes. It's not that we intend to do it, but rather that we have 'instinctively' done it before we realise:

People who come from . . . are this colour and have this level of education; Methodists think like this, Catholics think like that; if she lives there her political leaning will be right wing, if he chooses to appear in public looking like that he must be a student with left wing political leanings, and so on.

The process by which we make generalisations is a natural function of the active mind, it helps the brain to organise large amounts of information, but the fall-out of generalisations can be dangerous - as anyone knows who has been caught in the middle of one! What about the term 'Christian'? The generalisations you instinctively associate with it may be so dissimilar to those of your neighbour as to have almost no common ground at all.

A friend of ours, who was living in London at the time, was asked by a young man while travelling to work on the tube if she was 'born again'. I have always admired her presence of mind in insisting that he defined his terms before she answered the question. Without this precaution, a simple answer in the affirmative could have in fact been less true than one in the negative.

It is all too easy to decide on a bunch of characteristics and assign them to a group of people. It is not until we find ourselves at the wrong end of such a process that we realise how unpleasant and in fact how detrimental it is. John White, the well known Christian psychiatrist and author, alludes to this process when he points out the double standard we use when we divide people into 'us' and 'them'. We tend to be quite happy to see 'them' as all lumped together, thinking the same thoughts, doing the same things, but when we consider 'us' we suddenly find ourselves aware of every nuance of thought and behaviour. 'We', it turns out, are each unique individuals, but 'they' are merely a faceless collection of humanity en masse.

 

Muslims are a group of people whom many Christians have been guilty of 'boxing'. We all too readily assume that Muslims think this and behave like that, when if the truth be told, most of us don't know any Muslims, let alone have intimate conversation with them. In the aftermath of the Taliban, many Muslims may feel rather like many Christians felt after the tele-evangelist scandals of some years back. They do not want to be seen as 'tarred with the same brush' simply because they bear the same label.

As followers of Christ, through whom each of us was made, we should make every effort to honour each person's individuality: to treat one another as we ourselves would wish to be treated. Every person should have the right to tell us their views on a particular subject before we leap to conclusions on their behalf.

A visit to the mall demonstrates the paradox that people are both very different from each other and yet essentially the same. If we guard each one's unique individuality with the same zeal as we guard our own, maybe the lids will come off some of those boxes and greater understanding will be the result.


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