I live in a great neighborhood. While it’s only a few minutes drive to Atlanta’s downtown and midtown neighborhoods, it’s also just as close to the city center of neighboring Decatur. While we live in an urban area, our yard leads into a woods and the houses in our neighborhood have enough space that people can breathe. When I’m at home, I feel as though I’m in a rural town.
Mine is a middle class neighborhood including young families, retirees, some professionals, and some families with kids who have returned home as adults because of economic hardship. It’s a diverse neighborhood. While I haven’t counted, I’d guess that the neighborhood is over half African-American, a third White, along with a handful of people of Asian or Native American descent. Religiously, the neighborhood is predominantly a mix of Christians and Muslims.
My study is a front room of my home. I spend most of each day at my desk. Ahead of me is a large window that looks out to the front yard and street. On a typical day, I see birds feeding, squirrels playing, and people walking. Each morning, around the same time, I see one of the neighbor’s sons walking to catch a bus. I’d guess he’s 18 or 19 years old and wears ear buds for his music. He walks at a steady pace. Some days he wears a baseball cap cocked a bit to one side; often he wears a hoodie; and on our current warm, humid days, he doesn’t wear any head cover. Yes, he’s African-American.
I don’t really know the young man or his family. When I see them, I wave or say hi. The young man seems to me to be shy and often lost in his music. To be honest, he seems like most young men his age.
Since the death of Treyvon Martin in February 2012, I’ve often thought of the young man in my neighborhood. Each day, he does the same thing that Treyvon Martin did: walk through his neighborhood to go home. I suspect that the young man in my neighborhood is much like other young men, with a wide variety of hopes, dreams, and some crazy thoughts rolling around in his head, thinking about life, love, and, well, all kinds of stuff. Part of being young is considering and testing various thoughts, ideas, perspectives while developing a sense of identity.
Young black men in the United States have to contend with issues that I can barely imagine. In the midst of all the exploration that’s part of being a youth, they also have to come to understand that because of the color of their skin, they could be in danger even while doing innocent things like walking to and from home. Some people (no, not all people, but definitely some people) will look at these young men and, for no other reason than their skin color, assume that they are up to no good. Some of these people will take it upon themselves to scrutinize these young men, follow them, and try to catch them in the act of wrong doing. Yes, such vigilantes will continue profiling and stalking young men even when told by authorities to stop. That’s because of the irrational fears that are the basis of racism.
Fear: it’s a powerful emotion. It’s one we also share with many other animals. Because fear is found in many other animals, fear is often viewed as being a primal emotion. Some psychologists understand fear as an instinctual part of our fundamental make-up. Others say that it is a learned response. While the ability to experience fear is part of how the brain functions, many of our common social fears are learned. For example, it’s an instinctual response to experience fear when we walk down the street at night and someone jumps out from behind a shrub. But to fear when someone wears a particular item of clothing is a learned response. It’s also not rational.
One of the amazing things about being human is that we have the capacity to examine our emotional states. We are able to gain insight into whether what we feel is appropriate for the situation or not. We also have the capability of changing our emotional state. Unfortunately, the trend in American culture is to just give in to emotions as we experience them. We don’t encourage each other to examine our fears, or anger, or hurt. Instead, we commonly encourage people to just experience them and, implicitly, to act on them. That’s a dangerous thing.
We learn to examine our emotions not in the moment we’re overcome by them but by taking time to think and reflect on our experience at other points of our day. This kind of reflection is part of traditional spiritual practices. Christians have sometimes referred to such reflection as an examination of conscience. Some Buddhists know this reflection as part of logong or “mind training” that’s part of compassion meditation.
As a child of the 1950s, I grew up at a time and in an environment that conveyed very clear messages about racial prejudice. In my youth, I regularly heard the “N-word” used. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I actually met and spoke to an African-American person. Knowing someone from Asia didn’t happen until I was in college. Because of my background, I had to examine the messages that were present in my environment and the suspicions infused in me in order to come to understand that I was taught fear based in racial prejudice. From the basic spiritual practice called an examination of conscience taught to me in Catholic school as a child, I knew how to intentionally consider my thoughts, words, and actions each day to find ways to overcome my own shortcomings. When I coupled this practice with the foundational belief that all people are created in the image and likeness of God, I learned to face my own fear of and prejudice toward people different from myself. That foundational belief and regular spiritual practice opened me to value, affirm, and trust people in ways that have enriched my life far more than I could have ever imagined.
In words found in the Gospel of Mark (chapter 5, verse 36), Jesus says, “Fear is useless. What is needed is trust.” Those words couldn’t be more true. Fears rooted in racism, sexism, nationalism, and heterosexism are useless. They harm us as individuals and society. What we need is to trust one another, to live together in harmony, and build a better world.
What does that means in practical terms for my current life? While I think I live in a great neighborhood, I’m not naïve. There are real dangers in life. For example, I’m well aware that every few months, a home in our neighborhood is burglarized. I have an alarm system and other security features in my home. (I do not and will not own a gun because guns have one purpose: to kill.) Other neighbors are also concerned about the burglaries that occur. We don’t yet have enough households who have signed on to officially form a “neighborhood watch” based on the criteria from our local police. But we’re working on it. In the meantime, many of us keep watch over each other’s home. We share our schedules and let each other know about our concerns. Rather than living in fear and acting irrationally, we are building trust. Because we know we can work together, we are actively building community to address a real and tangible threat.
While I don’t have the ability to prevent others from allowing fear to rule their lives or stop the spread of racism, sexism, nationalism, or heterosexism in society, I do have the ability to not participate in these irrational emotions and behavior. Instead, drawing on the words of the great U.S. President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, I can live and work with others that “asserts my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
© 2013, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.