A while back in one of the “feel-good” groups on Facebook, a woman shared a photo of two lunches she’d made. Along with it was a story about how she’d recently learned her son had been sharing his lunches with a friend at school, who was going hungry at lunch. So from a place of privilege and loving kindness, she had started sending him to school with two lunches. The photo showed two bagged sandwiches, two bags of chips, two sliced apples in bags, and two drinks. Her commentary on the post was how good it made her feel to help her son’s friend and to teach her son about sharing the abundance he’s been blessed with.
Most of the comments were as expected: “Nice job, Mama!” and “Way to raise ‘em right!”
Then someone commented, in a firm but respectful way, that what she’d actually done was simply double the amount of single-use plastic she was putting into landfills. Her son was indeed receiving a message that his actions matter, but the lesson involving his actions toward the planet wasn’t there.
New Awareness Can Be Rough
It was shocking to read, frankly, and for a moment I bristled at the comments. The woman was just trying to do something nice, and here comes this person to burst her bubble. But that commenter was not wrong. Their awareness was simply broader than many of ours, and the ensuing conversation was fascinating. Watching people’s light bulbs turn on, including my own, was a different kind of communion with my fellow humans. Sitting on the internet, metaphorically looking at each other slack-jawed like “how is this so obvious and also such a shocker?” There was very little arguing. It was a whole lot of “Well, shoot. Can’t unsee that now.”
Two friends of mine are a married couple and they have a rule in their house: If you’re the one to see the cat puke first, you have to clean it up. There is no denying that you saw it. You simply take care of business because that mess needs cleaning, and you’re no better than your partner. You don’t pass the buck.
Expand Into Understanding
In life, there are so many ways that we can be aware. We can read books, do our own research, or gain knowledge through experience. These things help us with a deeper understanding of the world around us. Awareness can involve simply opening our eyes and paying attention to what’s happening. Or even closing our eyes, to become more attuned with certain internal and external subtleties.
There are just as many ways to be unaware… many are equal and opposite to the ways we can bring about awareness. We can choose not to educate ourselves. We close our eyes, not so that we can tune in to the subtleties, but because whatever is in front of us is too hard to look at… or doesn’t agree with our agenda. Sometimes we close our eyes to tune out, but not in that blissful, meditative way. We’re tuning out the cat puke.
Metaphorically speaking, certain laws and societal structures sometimes make it so our eyes get closed for us… or more accurately, certain blinders are placed. The eyes still function, and that’s great news. So we can choose to heighten our awareness, remove the blinders, but first we must be aware that there even are blinders. That society is offering you one awareness, but in reality there are many.
Many of us are finding a new awareness right now, in many different aspects of life. We are working through the finer points of a worldwide pandemic, for example. In the beginning, it was a little more “kumbaya” than it is now. More “we’re all in the same boat” kind of feel. But that idea didn’t last long, because it quickly became apparent that we are not all in the same boat. It’s more like we’re all in the same storm. Some of us have yachts, while others have rowboats. Some have a small piece of flotsam upon which to cling, and there are plenty more who don’t even have that much. We’re not all in the same boat, not by a long shot.
It’s easy to come at things from our own perspective, and indeed that’s always going to be the default. But this is some of that awareness I’m talking about: Listening without judgment, without defensiveness, when people say “no actually, we’re not all in the same boat.” Or “all you did was double the plastic.” It is from this place where solutions can come. By becoming aware that my neighbor is suffering, I can help somehow. By sticking to the idea that we’re all on an even footing with this pandemic, I keep my eyes shut and my awareness blocked. I am not in reality, I’m in my own world.
Supportive Awareness That Matters
Racism is another area where my awareness is being blown wide open right now. This too is true for many of us. One of the hardest things I’ve had to learn recently is that none of this is new. This is not an escalating problem. This is how it’s been for a very long time, hundreds of years, except now we all have smartphones.
Just like the commenter about the single-use plastic, our fellow human beings are showing us, in real time, what’s up. How it really is, and how it’s been for a long time. Some of us will choose to avert our eyes, and some of us will not. I am firmly in the “will not” column. I will not continue to wear the blinders. Not the ones I put there myself, and not the ones that society put there for me either.
When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
Every day, I meet a new teacher.
Sometimes they hold a mirror up to me. They make me look at my own actions.
Sometimes they reveal certain intricacies in the societal structure that I hadn’t noticed.
I think it was George Carlin who did a bit about supporting the troops. His idea was basically that if all you do is put bumper stickers on your car, or wear a yellow ribbon on your lapel, you really don’t support the troops. Support involves getting down and dirty with it. It means voting for people who will care for our veterans in the right way.
It means taking their PTSD and everything else they’ve got going on, seriously. Supporting the troops means donating to causes that further the healing of our veterans. Or volunteering on weekends at the local vet center. But support is not passive, and our awareness shouldn’t be passive either.
It’s exactly the same with racism. If you’re just sharing hashtags and yelling into the internet, you’re not really supporting victims of racism. You need to do something. Educate yourself. Donate. Volunteer. Vote.
Awareness Is Incremental
Right now each of us is being invited to cultivate more awareness.
Awareness of the science behind stopping the spread of viruses, and of how we’re not all in the same boat. What it really means to not be in the same boat.
Aware of how horrifically those with not-white skin are treated and have been for hundreds of years. How our votes, spending habits, our perspectives, and societal conditioning all keep that system of oppression in place.
Generally more aware of the blinders. All the ways we tune out, purposefully or not. The ways that, if we’re being honest, we don’t support the cause. We are not there, present and accounted for. The ways we perpetuate the hurt of others, through lack of awareness in ourselves.
Meaningful Work Ahead
I know I’m not perfect. I have a long way to go. So many of us do. I know that one reason this is bothering me so much, the blatant racism and utter hate that I see, is because I’ve had glimpses of it on multiple levels. I’ve always known racism is ugly. It has a palpable feel to it. Institutionalized racism is baked right into every aspect of the US infrastructure, and it is frightening when you start really seeing it.
One day you’re shopping at Whole Foods, and the next day you learn they use prison labor. Which you may not outwardly have an issue with until you see the numbers on incarcerated African-Americans. Until you learn how once they’re in, even for minor offenses, they often don’t make it out. Once you see how they are systematically oppressed, right from day one.
It’s kind of like the cat puke. You can’t unsee it, and if you just step around it and keep on walking, you’re the asshole.
So I’m not trying for “perfect”… I’m trying for “aware”, “not defensive when called out”, or more simply: “teachable”. I’m aiming to expand my awareness, constantly. To support black lives, and the lives of those who aren’t in my boat, in a meaningful way. In ways that matter to them, not that are convenient for me.
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