In the mid 90’s, I read a book that really spoke to me. It was called “The Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of the War” by Slavenka Drakulic. She is a respected journalist and commentator from Croatia. The publication contained a series of essays about the effect the Serbo-Croatian war had on her colleagues and fellow countrymen.
The portion of the book that I remember to this day is her essay “High Heeled Shoes.” In it she described her growing awareness that she had turned citizens of her country, even close friends, into “others.”
First, she saw that instead of seeing refugees as people who had escaped slaughter by the Serbians, she had started stereotyping them. “They are just sitting smoking, doing nothing. Waiting. Waiting for what? For us to feed them. They could work, there are plenty of jobs around, houses to be repaired or working the land.” She heard a woman on a train say “This city stinks of refugees” at a time when there were refugees sitting beside her.
As she continued to examine her own attitudes, she saw that she had reduced individuals to the category of “they” and from there to “second-class citizen” or “non-citizen.” She realized when we do this, they soon become “not-me” or “not-us.” We may feel some sense of responsibility for them, but it is the type of responsibility that we feel towards beggars. “The feeling of human solidarity turns into an issue of my personal ethics.” We help only if we want to.
As her reflection continued, she wondered :
Perhaps what I am also witnessing is a mechanism of self-defence as if there were a limit to how much brutality, pain or suffering one is able to take on board and feel responsible for. Over and above this, we are often confronted with more less abstract entities, numbers, groups, categories of people, facts– but not names, not faces. To deal with pain on such a scale is in a way much easier than to deal with individuals. With a person you know you have to do something, act, give food, shelter, money, take care. On the other hand, one person could certainly not be expected to take care of a whole mass of people. For them, there has to be someone else: the state, a church, the Red Cross, Caritas, an institution.
Out of opportunism and fear we are all becoming collaborators or accomplices in the perpetuation of war. For by closing our eyes, by continuing our shopping, by working our land, by pretending that nothing is happening, by thinking it is not our problem, we are betraying those “others” – and I don’t know if there is a way out of it. What we fail to realize is that by such divisions we deceive ourselves too, exposing ourselves to the same possibility of becoming the “others” in a different situation.
I still resonate with everything Slavenka Drakulic said in that essay. I know I put panhandlers in the “other” category. When I see someone whom I think might be about to ask me for money, a whole litany of judgments erupt within me. While I’ve worked on this issue, it is not gone. While I don’t believe I have the same negative judgments about the victims of war and the natural disasters that are occurring with increasing frequency in the world, I believe I am still seeing them as “others.”
I need to confront my judgments, help more, and remember to think of people as individuals who like me have needs and wants. I need to remind myself that we belong to the same human family. They are a part of me; we are one. No, I can’t fix all of the problems in the world, but I can do more than I am doing and it can be from a place of love, caring and inclusion rather than from some “better than thou” place within myself.
As I was completing this post, I remembered a part of a guided imagery meditation from “Legacy of the Heart: The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood.” by Wayne Muller. I will leave you with his words.
Observe how birth, suffering, illness and death touch each one of us who lives on the earth. This is the pain we all share, in which we all partake, the pain of being human that touches our common bodies, hearts and minds. You may say to yourself as each image arises. “I am your other self.”
Embrace each image with forgiveness, mercy and love, touching the pain your heart, touching all the beings who suffer with your heart. This is the inheritance of the family of creation. This is your family.
Feel the depth of connection to all beings as you allow the pain to be the doorway into community with your greater family. Feel the truth of that belonging. Gradually return to the awareness of your breath as it naturally flows in and out of your body; feel your body as a tiny cell in the larger body we all share.
Lokah Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu
May all beings in the world be happy.