Like many people, I am prone to snap judgments. Upon meeting or even seeing someone for the first time, I immediately make an assessment about their likability and character. That would be all well and good if my judgments proved to be unerringly right; but so often my first impressions have been dead wrong.
I can recall a girl in my high school English class whom I immediately characterized as a spoiled rich girl. She was impeccably coiffed, made up, and dressed, and she was not afraid to speak up in class. All this made me dislike her out of hand. As the school year progressed, though, and we were thrown together on class projects, I discovered the girl’s real self: an eccentric, witty, self-deprecating girl whose passion for literature matched my own. For her part, she had me pegged as a prissy goody two shoes based on the sole fact that I never crossed my legs. Of course, we became fast friends.
We all have our prejudices, and it’s probably a vestige of our survival instinct. Prehistoric humans needed to be able to assess danger within seconds in order to protect themselves. So they developed an ability to categorize an animal or other human instantly as either dangerous or safe. With the development of more sophisticated societies, these snap judgments remained while the need for protecting ourselves from outsiders dwindled.
Over the past 50 years, America has made great strides in civil rights. Even Martin Luther King, Jr. himself would probably find it hard to imagine the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. Yet with the candidacy and election of Donald Trump, much of the remaining racism in our country has bubbled to the surface. Now more than ever, our citizens need to find a way to come together and surmount the deep-seated fears and hatreds with which we have grown up.
Here is where the personal touch can help. It’s harder to demonize whole groups of people when we have personal relationships with some of them. A case in point is the story of Chris Buckley, former Klansman and Army sergeant with an unyielding hatred of Muslims. Buckley’s wife reached out to an organization that helps white supremacists leave behind their hate-infused worlds. A member of that organization introduced Buckley to Heval Mohamed Kelli, a Syrian Kurdish refugee who had made a life for himself in America and is now determined to give back to the country that took him in. (Chicago Tribune, June 10, 2018)
Chris Buckley’s encounters with poor African Americans and with men like Kelli have helped dispel the fear and hate he had built up in his heart. Himself a drug addict and the survivor of an abusive household as a child, Buckley has chosen the path of compassion and help for others who are struggling as he has struggled for most of his life.
In my previous post, I wrote about how the personal touch can help us feel more connected and less lonely. But I believe it can do even more. Personal encounters with people of different races, religions, and social classes can bridge the gaps in our understanding and break down the walls of prejudice we have falsely convinced ourselves we need for protection.
Stories like Buckley’s make me hopeful that there is deep goodness inside each of us, and with some effort we can all bring out that goodness for the betterment of society and even for ourselves.