This past week I was in Belize. Each day, I put on my running shoes, left the gates of the resort and ventured into the local community. I do this on most of my vacations.
I know that quite a few people think this is unsafe. Maybe you are thinking that too.
You see, running clears my head and gives me time to process things. But it also opens me up to new experiences, new cultures, and new people.
As I read the headlines, I can’t help but notice how afraid people are. We read about mass shootings so frequently, that we become numb to it. We ignore the sting just as we ignore those annoying car alarms
In psychology we call it habituation. Over time, our response to the same stimulus becomes less intense.
Why do these bad things happen? Because people are afraid of people and cultures that are unfamiliar. Why? Because there is this need to be connected. It’s one of the most important parts of being human. We need other people. And one of the things our brains do to look for “our group” is search for commonalities with others. We want a “community.” One way we find it is by geography. We are Americans or Europeans and if we see someone in our group, especially when we are outside our own country, this will give us something in common. We might also look for people who look like us. Skin color, clothing choices, height, weight. All these can make us feel understood and part of a group.
The problem seems to be that, like all things that can be helpful, when taken to the extreme, this search for the familiar is toxic.
Knowing that someone shares a common political outlook gives us connection and that can be a positive thing. But somehow, we also have the ability to make those who are outside of our group, something to be feared or disliked; a common enemy.
Here is an interesting fact. One of the theories about why we buy celebrity magazines and watch celebrity gossip is because our brains are wired with tribe or group mentality. It makes sense since a group can keep us safe. For thousands of years, our ancestors lived outside and had to work together to stay safe. If we see the same face over and over again, our brain thinks it is the face of someone in our tribe. Our brains weren’t wired over the centuries for television faces to be differentiated from our peer groups. So, we all think Oprah and George Clooney are part of our tribe and we want to know what’s happening with them.
We feel safe because someone has the same look, the same faith, the same economic status, the same neighborhood, the same car.
But this is our old brain overriding our intellect. What do we know at this point? Only that we fear what is different from ourselves.
The way to get past our fears is to move out of our comfort zone and meet people from other groups. When I go running in a foreign country, sometimes fear creeps in that I’m being stupid. But then I think of the reality that I cannot predict when or if I will ever be injured and I’m more likely to be murdered in most American cities than running in an unknown small town. I have to use reason and thought to override fear. My fear is trying to keep me safe and I appreciate it, but it isn’t always rational.
The only way to end fear is by overcoming our brains desire to be only with the familiar.
You can’t be prejudice against a group when you know someone in that group who is kind and smart and just as human as you are.
We have to get uncomfortable and develop friendships outside our group. We need to know people from different faiths and economic groups and races. It not only makes life more interesting, it cuts down on false beliefs and fears. It has the ability to reduce hate, prejudice and racism.
Here are two ideas to start:
- Expose Yourself to Different People and Ideas. Listen to podcasts about topics you don’t know much about. I recently listened to Ear Hustle about life in prison and it changed my understanding of the people in prison dramatically. Ask someone to lunch who isn’t exactly like you. Maybe someone from your kid’s school or someone from work. I started a group I call my Ideas Group where a group of women meet once every 3 months to discuss a topic, like fear or aging. I intentionally asked a few Christians, a few Jewish women and some more spiritual, not dogmatic people. I asked a few Republicans and a few Democrats. I want to understand what other people believe.
- Expose Yourself to Different Cultures. I also highly recommend travel, if possible, as a means to meet new people from different cultures. Scuba diving has been an incredible means for me to meet people from everywhere. When you get on a dive boat, everyone has at least one thing in common. We all want to dive. On one trip a few years ago, I met people from Mexico, Russia, Spain, and Brazil. I learned a ton.
I’ll end with the quote from a former boss, John Nicoletti. We did lots of therapy and consulting with the police and public safely personnel after attacks like Columbine and murders. It made me scared for a while to realize how much bad there is in the world.
But John said, “Shannon, evil is much more powerful than good, but good vastly outnumbers evil.”
The second part of the sentence is why I will continue to put my running shoes on and get out of the resort every chance I get.
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Shannon Connery, Ph.D.