“By defining ourselves against something, we are in fact defining ourselves by it. …We will see anger only if we know it.” I recently read these lines in a book (Radical) and recalled other, similar narratives.
One summer evening my good friend and mentor, the late Prof. Singh and I were enjoying a cup of tea while his young grandson played close by. Prof. Singh pointed out that the toddler, who had torn out a page from a discarded newspaper, needed no more than this scrap to stay amused for hours on end. He was, in turn throwing it up in the air like an airplane, pretending it was a car dragged along the floor while making purring sounds or just sat still fascinated by the rustling when crumpling the paper in his tiny hands. We wondered what his baby-eyes caused him to see in that piece of paper and concluded that probably it reflected what he chose to see in it.
A 16th century Sufi poet Shah Hussain had penned the following lines in one of his famous kafis (a classical form of Sufi poetry):
“Ni saiyyon, aseen nainaa de aakhe lagge”
[Oh my friends, I have been led astray by my eyes].
Our eyes show us only that which we choose to see, shaped by our own life experiences. His rune continues that only those who are pure of heart and choose not to judge are able to witness the true nature of things.
We are all familiar with the oft-used example of viewing the glass as half full/empty. Buddhists believe that every person has the potential to “awaken” and be transformed into a “Buddha”. Accordingly, they stress it is the inherent nature of all beings that should be valued and respected.
However, it is not uncommon for us to rush to judgement merely by looking at someone. We may adopt any of several yardsticks available – body shape, skin color, language or even how someone dresses etc. Entire countries and races of peoples are then broadly labeled, “Generally speaking, these people…” taking care to add the caveat, “But don’t get me wrong as I have a lot of friends who are ……”
Several years ago on an afternoon just before Christmas, I walked into a LCBO store to replenish my dwindled stocks. There were long queues at each cash counter and I lined up to wait my turn. The cashier was a 50-something ebullient lady with silver hair, who was cheerfully handling her customers’ business and wishing everyone a “Merry Christmas” as they left her counter. As I walked up to the counter with my bottles, it was as if a shutter came down. The cashier looked at me coldly and without a word started toting up my purchases. I smiled and to strike up a conversation, said, “Busy afternoon. Thank you, for being here today.” She looked up at me, confused and inquired, “What do you mean?” I said, “You probably have to prepare for a family meal and the turkey would be waiting to go into the oven. If you celebrate Christmas, there must be a ton of chores that you have to complete and yet, here you are serving all of us.” She paused, “Do you celebrate Christmas?” I nodded and said, “Yes, but not in the traditional sense and with some conditions. The tree has to be put up and taken down by the kids. We accompanied some friends once to a midnight Mass, but usually visit with most of our friends after Christmas, once the bustle is over. And, no presents for kids after they graduate from high school.” Suddenly, she smiled and extended her hand across the counter, “A very Merry Christmas to you Sir and to your family.”
I had just made another new friend by breaking the mold each of us was trying to place the other person in.