The notion of “us” versus “them”

We were walking down the well-worn path along the railroad tracks earlier this summer, discussing something along the lines of folks who don’t eat mindfully, or folks who don’t exercise, or folks who aren’t active in their community, when Henry stopped me with the gently-facetious question, “Well, I guess everyone else is wrong and we’re right, huh?”

It is human nature to mentally create teams, those who are “with you” and those who aren’t. It’s tribal mentality, a concept I learned about more concretely after reading A Brief History of Everything by Ken Wilber (never heard of Wilber? You aren’t alone. The Rise and Fall of Ken Wilber.) In explaining the evolution of human consciousness, Wilber has constructed a model he calls “Spiral Dynamics”. Throughout human evolution, we have seen the world through different eyes, from the earliest hunter-gatherer societies to our newly-emerging world consciousness, where we have the ability to view all humans as equals, if our life circumstances have afforded that level of consciousness. Tribal mentality falls under the Mythic Order level, explained below:

Life has meaning, direction, and purpose, with outcomes determined by an all-powerful Other or Order. This righteous Order enforces a code of conduct based on absolutist and unvarying principles of “right” and “wrong.” Violating the code or rules has severe, perhaps everlasting repercussions. Following the code yields rewards for the faithful. Basis of ancient nations. Rigid social hierarchies; paternalistic; one right way and only one right way to think about everything. Law and order; impulsivity controlled through guilt; concrete-literal and fundamentalist belief; obedience to the rule of Order; strongly conventional and conformist. Often “religious” or “mythic” [in the mythic-membership sense; Graves and Beck refer to it as the “saintly/absolutistic” level], but can be secular or atheistic Order or Mission. – Ken Wilber Summary of Spiral Dynamics model

Examples of the Mythic Order in our evolution include Puritan America, Confucian China, and Dickensian England. Examples of the Mythic Order existing today include patriotism, Boy and Girl Scouts, and religious fundamentalism. Examples that are more applicable in my own life, and perhaps in the lives of many women my age, include notions of proper body shapes (slender and fit is “right”, curvy and voluptuous is “wrong”), lifestyle choices (how one dresses/styles their hair/makeup or no, where to grocery shop and what to buy, midwifery versus hospital births, etc.), career choices (self-employed, “starving artist”, and orientation towards a traditional career, stay-at-home-mom), and how one spends their free time (hiking, watching YouTube videos, making cookies, social drinking, etc.).

It is so easy to judge our own preferences as “right” and others’ as “wrong.” Beside the naturalness of this very human tendency, I see the media, even seemingly well-intentioned media (think Yoga Journal or other such publications), playing into the human desire to feel safe in their right choices. Does the media really have our best interests in mind, or are they using our fear of doing something wrong to increase the likelihood that we’ll pick up their publication and throw it in the shopping cart? If my lifestyle focuses on eating organic food, using my bike as my main transportation, reading books instead of blogs, meditating daily, and connecting intimately with friends and loved ones, does that make me right and those not interested in my lifestyle choices wrong?

I read the 1985 interview with Stephen Gaskin in this month’s issue of The Sun. In it, he answers someone’s question about whether or not pedestrians should carrying weapons to protect against police:

As long as you call it “us and them,” you’re stuck. As long as you call it “us and them,” you’ve had it. If you say, “We don’t make it,” then you can work it out. If you call it “us and them,” it’s harder to get “them” to cooperate with us. Basically, it’s all “us.”

Alienating ourselves from others who are making drastically different life choices is not the answer. It creates a need to fight back to defend our actions and feeds power struggles. Could it be that police violence is partially fed by our increasing hatred and mistrust of our police forces? Continually placing policemen and women in the “wrong” category, instead of seeing how they are warm-blooded humans with families and fears and hopes and values?

I feel a necessity to get to my point here. My point is that I’m becoming weary of making sure my life is right by comparing myself to others in their wrongness. It saddens me that the media gains power and wealth by unashamedly sharing with the world when an individual or a group is/are fucking up. As I work to open my mind and expand my community to include people who are less and less like me, I’m finding that I am consistently challenged in a very positive way, and I see that maintaining the rigidity of my lifestyle choices to the point of potentially alienating myself from the rest of humanity is a very sad, narrow way to live. Of course I want to uphold my core values, but to restrict myself to interacting only with others who share those same beliefs is unfulfilling and weak. To discuss at great length how others are living incorrectly is becoming boring. I’d rather work to find the beauty in and the meaning behind all ways of life, in all lifestyle choices, in all sorts of humans.

I want to be “us” with everyone else, including all people in working towards worldly understanding and peace. Democrats and Republicans, rednecks and intellectuals, wealthy corporate CEOs and humble street musicians, all are welcome along the way.

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