Op-Ed

What it means to be human: creating a more perfect union

David Whitfield/ 2019 Olympian Board of Contributors
David Whitfield/ 2019 Olympian Board of Contributors sbloom@theolympian.com

This is my last column as a member of the 2019 Board of Contributors. In previous columns, I’ve written about several causes of social injustice: colorblindness, transgenerational trauma among children, gender inequity and the war against women, and rapacious racial capitalism.

Although not all of us experience them, these are issues that cause pain and suffering for those who do, and affect the ways all of us live, love, learn, and lead. Plus, social injustice obstructs movement toward e pluribus unum, and a more perfect union. How we relate to these issues globally, nationally, the ways we express our commitment to each other in this very community, depend on our wisdom about what it means to be human.

My view on being human relates to how we relate to each other based on whether we are similar or different. I find the work of Drs. Janet and Milton Bennett, who are interculturalists, helpful in understanding a way forward. Specifically, they describe how we interact with each other is connected to our Mindset, Heartset, and Skillset.

Mindset consists of what we know about those who differ from us – religiously, culturally, sexually, ethnically, etc. What do we know about their norms and values? How interested are we in learning more?

Heartset is directly related to our attitude toward different others. How do we feel about their sexual orientation, religiosity, ethnicity, culture, values, etc.? Do we feel that these differences make others less virtuous or less lovable?

Skillset includes our abilities to work with others. How do we gather information, sort out new facts, and learn? Are we skilled at listening? Do we know how to build and nourish relationships?

Once I asked a graduate leadership class: “If we’re so intelligent — with a large brain, one of the criteria that makes us human — why haven’t we learned to resolve our differences without violence, war?” Some wiggled in their chair; there were mumblings. Some said, “I never thought about that question.” And when one student raised his hand, I expected something, novel, substantive.

Me: “Yes.”

Student: “Well, the other guy has something I want and he won’t give it up.” There was much laughter.

Me: “Really? So, that’s how being human works?”

During the discussion, a student asked me to share my thoughts on the question.

Me: “Because we haven’t developed cognitively enough despite our large brain; and because of ignorance, we often fear those who don’t look like us, because we don’t understand them; we tend to shut down, allowing the opportunity to connect to slip away.”

But I believe it is possible for us to learn to strengthen the connections across our differences that would make it possible for us to peacefully resolve our differences. To paraphrase Dr. Wayne Dyer, “If we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.”

If we acknowledge our fears, recognize our limitations and our ignorance of those who differ, plus engage the mindset, heartset, build our skillset for reaching out rather than pulling back, we’d be on the road to a more inclusive and equitable society. We could lead toward e pluribus unum and a more perfect union — or at the very least a much stronger union than we have right now.

How do we acknowledge our limitations, confront ignorance, and engage mindset, heartset and skillset more deeply? By each allowing our heart and mind to work in harmony, Kim Lincoln, spiritual teacher and author of “Holy Here Wholy You: Discovering Your Authentic Self,” prescribes opening both heart and mind simultaneously; that way compassion, openness, and curiosity toward others surface; and love is present. Powerful!

Mother Teresa says, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”

When our mind and heart are opened simultaneously, we have a template of the larger mind, says Lincoln, and our words align with our actions. We avoid fracturing the integral wholeness of our human nature. Being open in these ways can fully support our skillset to choose actions rather than being at the mercy of unconsciously driven reactions. With a broader understanding and openness, we look at things differently and respond to our community with a sliver of light or slice of warmth toward each other.

In these dark and divisive times, that would be a healing step for our community and our country. What is the best that can happen?

David Whitfield is founder of the veteran-owned Intercultural Leadership Executive Coaching, and a member of The Olympian’s 2019 Board of Contributors. He may be reached at dr.d.whitfield@gmail.com.
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