Everyday thoughts on
By a human aspiring to be a cat
When my family first moved to the states, my two brothers and I fell into the same trap in our English classes. At different times in the year we all got a "pick a side and argue for it" type of assignment. Let me give a simplified example to illustrate what I mean:
The town council has been approached by a company that is proposing to build a shopping center to stimulate the town's economy. However, the construction plans involve tearing down the town's park to make room for a parking lot. Should the town accept the proposal or keep the park? Pick a side and write a three to four page essay making three arguments for either going through with the construction or for dismissing the project.
The unreasonable fools that we were, we would answer in this fashion:
The town council is facing a difficult decision. On the one hand, a shopping center might in fact stimulate the town's economy. It may create new jobs for its citizens. It could provide space for small businesses to open crafts and specialty shops, or start up dance or martial arts clubs. It would also allow people to do their basic grocery shopping near their homes instead of having to do a long drive. On the other hand, a park could be an important and unifying part of the town life. It provides space for families to get together and for community events to take place. It gives everyone an opportunity to spend some time in nature. It's a place where people can exercise in the open air. On a personal level, I think having a park is important. But these are the points for and against the plan that the council should consider before coming to any type of final decision.
We thought we were following the right structure. We introduced the problem, made three arguments for it, three arguments against it, stated our personal opinion, and added that making serious decisions that can affect large groups of people can be difficult and should require a lot of consideration. (besides, how else could you possibly fulfill the three to four page minimum without adding pointless blabber???)
We all got a big floppy F.
The student failed to follow directions given in the prompt, because he did not commit to one side at the beginning of the essay.
Luckily, we had a very reasonable ESL teacher (english as second language), who came to our defense and explained to our other teachers that we're not actually that stupid, but are just struggling with learning a new language and that she would work with us on explaining the prompt and editing our work and that we would resubmit within a few days. Then she assured us that our writing is good but that we need to follow the rules to get a good grade, and proceeded to help us dumbify our work, by taking out half of it, and stretching out the other half with blabber. We all got A's. Our parents were so bewildered by this that for years they thought we got into some other trouble with the teachers and made up a ridiculous story (and then copied each other's story) to try cover it up.
I bring up this ridiculous story because, at least in my experience, I find this mentality of absolute duality to be so pervasive in the US (no wonder, since it's hammered in from a young age). So often it's one or the other: democrat or republican; cat person or dog person; god fearing christian or sex obsessed hippie; jock or nerd; best friend or arch nemesis. Possibilities are endless. The one exception to this, I like to imagine, developed with the tri-flavored ice cream: are you a vanilla, a strawberry or a chocolate? And so, there was one "out" of these impossible scenarios: I'm not really into politics; animals are ok, I don't really care; I don't have any opinions on religion... or any other topic in the world.
Now, not everyone is quite this extreme. But, on a subconscious level, this slithers into our existence. Have you ever chosen not to experience something new and different because you're just not that type of person? Have you ever held back your opinion or belief because it didn't line up with the beliefs of your community (family/job/church/school)? Have you ever felt like you needed to take sides in a break up or in a conflict between two friends? Have you ever felt that you could not explore or express ambivalence and ambiguity? I believe many of our inhibitions, fears, frustrations, and quick and easy judgments are rooted in "this vs. that", and "us vs. them" mentality, whether it's in the forefront or buried deep. "Me as I am vs. me as I am perceived by others".
I've seen posts on social media recently fighting this, in the nature of "just because we have different opinions doesn't mean we have to hate each other". That is a good start. But I would challenge everyone to go further. Express what you feel, especially if it's multifaceted. If you're not sure yet what you feel or how to express it, express that. "I'm not sure", or "I don't know how I feel yet", or "I have a lot of different feelings and I need to sort them out on my own", or "can you listen and help me sort them out". Don't fall back into the comfort of opinionless, faceless, soulless vanilla. Dig deeper. Find your spice. Do the research within yourself. Do the research about things happening in the world. Don't just repeat what's been hammered into your head. Check yourself. Ask if what you're saying is really what you believe. Ask why you believe it. Ask why you have not considered believing in something different. Ask if you're using your words responsibly and saying things that are factually true.
Sometimes, it's important to be part of the team. But a team is made up of multiple individuals, not a mindless mass of bodies. Be conscious. Know why you are where you are. And if you're not sure, or if the first thing that comes to mind is "just because", maybe take some time to figure it out.