Unity Requires Strength Training

I recently visited the nation of Tanzania with my husband and a group of Rotarians who wanted both to experience the adventure of an African Photographic Safari and to support the School of St. Jude, which provides a free education to some of Tanzania’s poorest and brightest children. Travel is special to me because it’s such a fun way to gain new insights and broaden my perspective. Our trip did not disappoint, as I learned from the people and the animals of Tanzania.

What did I learn? I learned that a generous thank you gift from the family of a sponsored child at the School of St. Jude was often a live chicken. We were blessed with live chickens from both the family my husband and I sponsored as well as the family our local club supported.  No, we didn’t take them home with us. We were able to pass them on to needy families from the school.

More importantly, I learned that it’s possible for a nation with more than 120 ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups to construct a national identity that unites them. They’ve found strength in their diverse customs and traditions. But unity doesn’t just happen, it requires strength training.

Tanzanians have problems, like people of all nations do. They struggle with issues like poverty, climate change, international relationships, resource management, corruption, injustice. Tanzanians, like Americans, have all the human instinctual emotions that make it hard for us to get along:  fear, greed, envy, anger, and the list goes on. Unity is difficult.

Christianity is the largest religion in Tanzania, but there are substantial Muslim and animist minorities. The current president of Tanzania, Samia Suluhu Hassan, is a Muslim woman who took office March 17, 2021. She, like Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, has emphasized unity both within Tanzania and with neighboring countries. On taking office she said, “This is the time to stand together and get connected. It’s time to bury our differences, show love to one another, and look forward with confidence.”

The people of Tanzania faced the challenge of creating a new nation in December of 1961 when they became independent from Great Britain. The territory of Tanganyika and the Zanzibar archipelago were combined to create Tanzania in 1964. The first president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, believed that unity was the key to the future and focused his efforts on establishing a national identity and language, deemphasizing ethnicity and divisions that could have torn his country apart. He said:

Cooperation and conflict are two sides of the same coin; both arise out of man’s relationship with his fellows. The larger the group, the greater the possibility of development through cooperation, and the greater the possibility of conflict.

Our Rotary group benefited from the efforts made by the Tanzanian people to create a harmonious, friendly nation. We were welcomed as American tourists and felt safe and respected throughout our travels. We visited public schools where children of different religions and tribes intermingled peacefully with their classmates. Tanzanian youth, like those everywhere, enjoyed getting their photos taken and posing with us for selfies.

St. Jude’s is a private school with a Christian base but welcomes children from all religious and ethnic backgrounds. Diversity is accepted and respected as a norm. But that hasn’t happened without a determined effort. For example, the student my husband and I sponsor wrote us that she was preparing for the school’s Cultural Day. She said, “There will be many groups that are presenting their cultures and our theme is ‘My Culture in a Modern Way.’ It’s all about how I can present my culture to the society and other people in a modern way.”  

Sharing cultural information creates understanding and trust. Without trust, we construct elaborate defense systems. Our energy goes towards attacking the “other,” whom we see as an enemy, not a neighbor with needs and fears much like our own.

The United States is, as our name declares, supposed to be united, but we’ve been having a hard time of it. It seems we don’t really want to be united – to listen and learn from each other in all our splendid diversity. We want to be divided so that we can prove that our side, our group, is the superior one. Could it be that deep down we believe equality and cooperation are way overrated?

We’re proud to be Americans and like to think of ourselves as exceptional – a first-world nation – better than second or third-world ones. But Proverbs 16:18 reminds us that “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” The United States is a rich nation when it comes to GNP (gross national product), but there are many ways to be rich.

The founders of our United States were starting a new nation and knew compromise was necessary to create unity. We idolize the framers of our Constitution who provided a foundation for our democracy, and if I were having a discussion with them today, I believe they’d say, “The Constitution is a living document meant to adapt to the times. Listen to the diverse stories of all Americans and refrain from self-righteousness. Work toward unity – not maintaining power and proving one side is better than the other.”  

Psychologist Carl Jung is credited with a quote he never actually said: “Thinking is difficult, that’s why most people judge.” If we want to refrain from blaming and shaming each other, we need to think about how to create unity and then act.

At the School of St. Jude, graduates are encouraged to use their education to help their families, community, and nation. Their motto is, “Fighting poverty through education.” The father of the student we sponsored said, “I’m so proud of my daughter. She will get an education and come back and help us.”

The School of St. Jude’s goal is not to educate students so they can become wealthy and live somewhere with a higher standard of living – to propel themselves from the “third world” to the “first world.” It’s to educate them so they can help others. A sign in the school emphasized their focus on kindness and read as follows:

We believe that compassion, support, empathy, and a friendly smile can go a long way in showing care for others. We strive to approach each new day with hope and positivity, knowing that we are working together and fighting poverty through education.

The animals of Tanzania also demonstrated to me the importance of unity. At least the herbivores did. One of my favorite sites on our safari was when we passed what I called a colorful party. There were areas where we saw zebras, wildebeests, giraffes, elephants, impalas, ostriches, cape buffalo and more, all in one spot. Why were they partying together?  

Our safari guide said one reason the animals like to hang out together is, “They all have different strengths when it comes to defending themselves from predators and finding food. For example, some have good hearing, others great eyesight. Some feel vibrations, others smell trouble.” I like to think they also enjoy being together and appreciate a party with interesting guests that aren’t just like them.  

If we want unity, we will need to do some strength training. It’s not easy to appreciate differences. But like the animals, we humans, if unified, can protect each other from the dangers of natural disasters, diseases, environmental degradation, and more, instead of wasting our energy battling each other.

But unity means inviting everyone to the party.

Becoming Wonder Full

I combed the calendar aisles in the bookstore several times but couldn’t find my usual Audubon yearly planner for 2022. Darn! During the last several years, I’ve loved the pictures of cute and exotic animals, amazing natural wonders, and peaceful scenes. Change was inescapable though, so back through the aisles I went, searching for beautiful, inspiring photos that would spark joy and add wonder to the unimaginative numbers and days of the week that help me organize my life.

My seeking led to my engagement calendar for 2022 which is entitled, “1,000 Places To See Before You Die.” The creator of the calendar, Patricia Schultz, warned me that life is short and adventure beckons. The first page of the planner featured just one quote by writer and philosopher G. K. Chesterton:

We are perishing for lack of wonder, not for lack of wonders.

G. K. Chesterton lived from 1874 to 1936, but I think his observation holds true for all human history. What a wonder full place our world is. And if earth isn’t enough, there’s a whole universe full of wonders we can ponder upon if we are willing to do so.

When I get feeling down about all the crazy disputes we humans create, climate change, pandemics, personal regrets – I am revitalized by upshifting my thinking to the wonders and mysteries that surround us. By appreciating surprises like the furry red fox that recently scampered about in our back yard. I wondered where she was going, where she lived and with whom, whether she was cold or comfortable in ten-degree Fahrenheit weather.

Of course, the wonders and mysteries of life aren’t always uplifting. They can be frightening. It’s natural to feel afraid of things we don’t understand. And the older I get, the more I realize how much we humans don’t understand – how much we can’t control. If I’m not careful, fear may eclipse my wonder and dampen my curiosity. I may become a curmudgeon who has lost the ability to experience awe.

My favorite Albert Einstein quote reminds me I can spark joy through curiosity. Albert advised:

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when one contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries to comprehend only a little of this mystery every day.

As an educator, I saw the importance of curiosity frequently. I supplied my students with the Einstein quote and tried to emphasize the joy of learning over worries about grades. If we’re not curious, we won’t ask questions, we won’t wonder, and we won’t increase our understanding. And we often fear that which we don’t understand.

I’m guessing most of us would say we seek truth, but when a new idea or perspective seems threatening, we sometimes dig in and refuse to be curious – preferring to stick with the “truth” as we’ve known it in the past. A quote from Nadine Godimer, South African writer and political activist, reminds me to hang in there and keep my mind open even when it’s tough to do so:

The truth isn’t always beauty, but the hunger for it is.

It isn’t pretty to look at our personal faults or the failings of groups we identify with. There are many unpleasant realities in our world that can and should disappoint and sadden us. But when we pursue justice and truth, when we’re curious and try to understand “truths” that appear different from our own, that is when we become wonder full.

When I taught sociology, I asked students to seek out articles about different cultures and different ways of doing things and present them to the class. I soon learned that if I wanted learning to occur, students needed to go beyond presenting information, because the conclusion that was being drawn was simply, “That’s weird. How strange.”  I realized I was facilitating ethnocentrism, which is what I was trying to prevent. Ethnocentrism means evaluating another culture according to the standards and customs of one’s own culture. It therefore leads to judging other groups as inferior to one’s own.

I needed to add to the assignment. Go ahead and present the different way of doing things, but then question why. Do some wondering. Be curious. Research the culture and discover the reasoning behind a tradition or event. No need to evaluate according to good or bad, inferior or superior. Instead discover function and effectiveness.

For example, when I was teaching organizational behavior to a diverse mix of students at the college level, our curriculum included information on building self-esteem – something I and most of my students assumed was a good thing. That is, until a student from Japan commented, “I think focusing on self-esteem makes people too self-absorbed and less likely to care for others.”  Her point of view came from a collectivist culture and mine from an individualistic culture and she made me wonder. A good discussion ensued regarding the meaning of self-esteem and perspectives were shared as to how it could be considered beneficial or detrimental. No criticism, but lots of curiosity, discovery, and expanded awareness.

The world can appear dark and ominous, full of challenges we fear we cannot overcome. Accepting that is hard, but once we do, we can start taking responsibility for creating light. We can pray, meditate, sing, dance, spread kindness, laugh at ourselves, seek out beauty. That helps us balance dark and light, the yin and the yang. We can embrace the holy, loving spirit within us that is urging us to find our joy, to experience wonder.

My new planning calendar has got me wondering what adventures I should be plotting next, what new things I can learn in 2022. There is much to discover close to home and, if all those microscopic viruses behave themselves, I also plan to travel to new places that may seem strange at first. That is until I open my heart and mind to acquiring a better understanding of why people are doing and thinking about things differently than I do. Until I become wonder full.

Photo by Anneliese Phillips at Unsplash

Critical Race Theory Is About Our Identities

Critical Race Theory (CRT) has gone from a concept to be analyzed to a political football targeted at provoking fear and manipulating voters. Supposedly CRT misleads students into believing their country is evil or was founded upon evil – as if nations can be categorized as good or evil – one or the other. But nations are made up of people, and like people, they are a mixture of good, bad, and everything in between.

I’ve taught history, but I’d never heard of CRT until it became a political issue, so I looked it up. The theory was officially organized in 1989 and, according to Britannica.com, is based on the premise that “Race is not a natural, biologically grounded feature of physically distinct subgroups of human beings, but a socially constructed (culturally invented) category that is used to oppress and exploit people of color.”

Whether we like it or not, we humans do label each other, and we have historically used the categories we invent, such as race, to distribute resources and power. We learn at an early age we can fit people into categories and those categories play an essential role in establishing identities. Our families and institutions, such as schools and the media, often lead us to believe some identities are better than others.

When teaching at an alternative high school serving students of various skin colors who were struggling through their teen years, I learned the impact our identity has on our vision of who we will become. A gentle, soft-spoken boy with light skin being raised by his grandparents worried he’d become a murderer like his father. A boy with Lakota heritage who had just studied the Holocaust wondered, “Why don’t people hate Germans instead of us Indians.”

Girls showed me the lyrics to their favorite songs, which portrayed them as objects whose only value was in providing sex to demanding males. A transgender student felt she would never have an opportunity for a loving, supportive relationship because of the messages she had received about an LGBTQ+ identity. A variety of students asked, “Why are you trying to teach us? We’ll just wind up in jail or working at McDonalds like our parents. Do you think we’re smart or something?”

The history and civics curriculum we provide our students is very important because it has a vital impact on their identities and the life paths they embark upon. I don’t believe anyone truly wants children, or adults, to feel badly about their identities. But sometimes we are so wrapped up in defending our own identities, in trying to escape guilt and shame, that we become defensive and neglect showing compassion, respect, and appreciation for the diversity of identities that surround us.

If our identity is tied to feeling special or uniquely blessed, hard truths and different perspectives will not be welcome information. When our identities are based on superiority to the identities of others, problems occur.

I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s and was taught about the Founding Fathers and other “his” stories of America. However, I do distinctly remember having the opportunity to read biographies of Marie Curie and Florence Nightingale. As a female, I could identify with those stories, and they comforted and motivated me much more than stories of heroes like Abe Lincoln or Albert Einstein. I also remember a story about George Washington Carver and the amazing discoveries he made regarding one of my favorite foods, the peanut. However, the grand majority of information I received regarding the contributions of people other than white males was garnered only through my own curiosity, as I sought out books covering a wide variety of people and perspectives.

We need to be proud of our identities and we need to understand why and how placing people in certain categories has led to unjust behaviors. One of my daughters sobbed after being told by a Sunday School teacher that, while enacting a play regarding a Jesus story, all the girls had to sit in the back while the boys got all the “good” roles. Through tears she told me, “I knew God didn’t like women, but I thought Jesus did.”

My daughter needed to know that historically societies, not Jesus, have demeaned women, and she needed to know why. We purchased a book entitled Herstory that told stories of strong women and the struggles they faced. My daughter confronted hard truths so that she could feel good about her identity and what the future could hold for her.

When I was teaching world history, one of my favorite topics was that of the Columbian Exchange. The world changed in “fourteen hundred and ninety-two when Columbus sailed the ocean blue” because it was the beginning of a link between the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa, and the continents of North and South America. Goods such as wheat, oats, sugarcane, cows, horses, sheep and chickens, were transported across the ocean to the Americas. The Americas introduced colonizers to products such as potatoes, tomatoes, corn, beans, pineapples, turkeys, and cacao. Mixing cultures made possible hot chocolate and pizza.

After a class discussion on the Columbian Exchange, one of my Lakota students came up to me with a contented smile on her face and said, “So, everyone contributed to the America we live in today. That’s cool!”

When we tell the stories of the indigenous people and all the immigrants who came to the Americas, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, we honor all identities. When we explain why there are disparities in our society and encourage civil discourse that sparks positive change, we create “liberty and justice for all.” We walk the talk.

Critical race theory may be poorly named because it sounds so, well, critical – and nobody likes to be criticized. “Vital understanding theory” or “cultural awareness theory” might be better accepted and more accurately describe the goal of exploring and analyzing our society’s labels and the way they have affected, and continue to affect, the institutions and systems we have in place.

 J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “Deep roots are not reached by the frost.” America is a land of great diversity with people who have amazing stories that need to be told. Growing up, I wasn’t made aware of the accomplishments, struggles, and resilience of all Americans, all the deep roots. For an American of European descent, that’s sad, but for Americans whose stories haven’t been told because of their minority status, that’s tragic.

All our stories need to be told. That’s not being critical, that’s being wise.

Photo by Naassom Azevedo on Unsplash

Left Wing Loves Right Wing

What if I told you the left wing and the right wing belong to the same bird?

– Author Unknown

My husband and I have been married 38 years. My husband is a Republican who is quite content being part of South Dakota’s majority party. I’ve been a Democrat since I registered to vote at age 18 and am quite content to remain part of South Dakota’s minority party. What is perhaps surprising is that we both are also quite content to stay married to each other until death do us part.

Have our political party labels caused some problems? Yes.

My husband has been asked questions like, “How can you be married to a Democrat?” Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and powerful politicians say all sorts of horrible things about me based on my political party label. I know because I listen to KOTA radio and I read their tweets. Since I live in South Dakota, I don’t hear as much criticism of Republicans (unless they’re criticizing each other), but I realize nasty, demeaning name calling plagues both political parties.   

Marriage and relationships are difficult enough without certain politicians and media maniacs doing their best to hinder our efforts at understanding and unity. Powerful people are encouraging us to distrust and disrespect each other. It’s frightening because it wasn’t all that long ago that we had a horrible civil war in our country in which family members, neighbors – fellow Americans – fought and killed each other over issues that continue to plague us today.

I’m an educator and have spent my career in the service sector. My husband has spent his entire career as a businessman. I love teaching and the community service work I have done and do, but I count myself lucky to have fallen in love with someone who could show me a different perspective. I’ve studied and taught economics but being married to a businessman has helped me better understand the complexities of a sector I wasn’t previously connected to. My husband gets to hear from me about the education and service segments of our nation. Ideally, we will always appreciate the insights and awareness each of us brings to the relationship and use our diverse experiences to make wiser decisions and produce more intelligent opinions. And often (not always unfortunately) that is just what happens.

There’s a myth out there that we can’t talk about politics or religion in polite company. We’re just too different and can’t agree. It’s true that our pride, egos, and lack of self-control can really derail a conversation and ruin a dinner party. But if we don’t communicate, we’ll never understand those with different life experiences and concerns. We’ll never see the whole picture and we’ll be stuck with our limited vision, unable to let in the light of knowledge and empathy, unable to courageously explore new ideas and adapt to an ever-changing world.

Another myth is that it’s weak and wishy-washy to change our minds or consider compromise. If we believe it’s weak to admit uncertainty or seek balanced solutions, we certainly won’t listen to anyone who challenges our self-declared righteousness, especially if they’re from a group or political party we’ve been told is inferior and trying to ruin our country. We cover ourselves with a shield of defensiveness and pride and attack those who disagree with us. Just as detrimental can be hiding behind a shield of shame and denial, afraid to challenge lies and injustice.

Tolerating uncertainty, listening to different perspectives, and striving for cooperative, win-win solutions isn’t just kind and nice; it’s productive, intelligent, and wise. Imagine if we tried not to impose our views on others and not to conform to the demands of others. Instead, we shared our thoughts freely and respectfully, without fear or manipulation, and listened to the stories of others with open minds and open hearts. That behavior could result in genuine dialogue that focused on solving problems and finding answers that unify, not divide us.

If we want to fly, we need our right wing, our left wing, and everything in between working together. We can trade in our shields of defensiveness and denial and pick up the shield of love and compassion. That takes courage and effort.

My husband and I may be labeled differently when we go to vote, but we, like most Democrats and Republicans, have so much in common. Both of us support equal rights, affordable health care for all, clean water and air, parks and wilderness areas, freedom from unnecessary regulations, sensible gun laws, responsible fiscal policies, child protection, and the list goes on. We value generosity, honesty, hard work, conscientiousness, compassion and respect for others, and the list goes on.

There will always be conflict and struggle because we’re humans who have different needs, experiences, and personalities. We’re not always logical or rational and we get emotional about issues that matter deeply to us. But we don’t have to be enemies, and we don’t have to listen to people who try to convince us that we are. We can dare to fly using both our wings.