Moving to a new country allows you to discover new things in the environment around you … and, as they say here in Mexico, desafortunadamente (I love the eight rolling syllables of that word), it also reveals things about ourselves that sometimes we’d rather not see. I call them the uglies.
I’ve been visited by two uglies in the past couple of weeks. The first was more of a blemish, but apparently I didn’t pay enough attention, so it came back in a much uglier form. As a relatively well-educated woman from a wealthy country, I have had decades to build up my prejudices and biases.
(And, just in case you believe you are prejudice-free, you might want to take the assessment at www.understandingprejudice.org/iat/. I first took it years ago and it surprised, and disappointed, me to find that I was moderately biased toward white people. It did open my eyes though, and made me more aware of my own bias and stereotyping.)
I believe strongly in tolerance and equality, and thought I had made progress in moving past bias. Apparently not so much. In a conversation with a Mexican man, I was surprised to find out that he had been a University professor in the US. I think I made it through that conversation without appearing completely arrogant, but, on reflection, realized that I carried into that conversation the stereotype of “less educated Mexican.” It made me uncomfortable to see that piece of myself.
However, there was more in store. At breakfast a couple of days ago with friends who have recently arrived to start their life here in Ajijic, we sat at a table next to an older, dark-skinned Mexican man missing several teeth. I actually felt myself write him off as a borracho (drunkard).
My friends are moving into their new place and were admiring the chairs in the restaurant, wondering if they could find some just like them, when the man at the next table, in near-perfect English, started telling us about where they came from and how they were made. And, then, without pausing, about his life here and in the US and how he learned to speak English by following tourists around the town when he was a boy. Once his words started, they didn’t stop.
My mind began a chaotic spin … attracted to his language skill, repulsed by his appearance (truly an Ugly reaction), amazed by the way he had learned the language when I am working so hard and seeing such slow results, irritated by his needy demand to be part of our conversation, startled by my own reaction that someone “like him” could be so fluent in a second language, impatient with his endless flow of words, wanting to be on with our own conversation and my own life.
It wasn’t until later that it all swirled into a truly ugly discovery about myself. I just finished a book (Forty Rules of Love (see more here) about Rumi and Shams of Tabriz. Shams is a wandering dervish who talks to drunkards, prostitutes and people of low status. Not only talks with them but learns from them, helps them. The book reminded me of my own commitment to “being love,” being kind and grateful for everything that comes my way. I don’t believe I have to go wandering through the world like Shams, but I do believe I need to be kind to everyone who comes my way.
The encounter at breakfast was like the Universe said, “Here’s an opportunity to be what you say you want to be.” And, I blew it. I knew it the minute I got up from that table and walked away from a man, a human being, who needed kindness. I fretted about it all day and went back the next morning, hoping to find him at that table, hoping to have another chance to be who I want to be. I thought at least I could buy him breakfast, listen to his words, be kind.
Of course, he wasn’t there. Chances are, I may never see him again. Perhaps, he was just an angel sent to give me a chance to express my better nature.
So, I’m left writing this, accepting and kindly embracing my inner uglies, hoping to make peace with them, hoping to do better next time. Inspite of the title of this piece, there is a political message here. I have been struggling with many of the policies of the current administration, wondering how our leaders could be so heartless and insensitive to the needs of our people. Now I realize that my behavior toward that man in the restaurant was just an example of how we wind up focused on our own wants and needs even when it’s at the expense of the person next to us.
If I can think my time is too important to be kind to an old man in a restaurant, why should I expect our leaders to choose kindness over their own interests?
More thoughts on kindness:
"There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; my philosophy is kindness." -- The Dalai Lama
"The magic in this world seems to work in whispers and small kindnesses." -- Charles de Lint
"One kind word can warm three winter months." -- Japanese proverb
"Doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.” -- Martin Seligman, Founder and Director of the Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania