Our state of mind or consciousness does not operate solely within on our own mind, as if the thoughts, behaviors, and feelings of others, and our reactions to other people’s feelings were quite minimal. For example, all of us know what it is like to wake up feeling great and then by the time we get back home from work, that good feeling has left us. More than likely something happened between us and another person that shifted our mood.
We seldom think that we have ingested a negative vibe or might feel exhausted from having to defend our feelings because we live in a society that often de-emphasizes the impact that others have on us. We live in a “I can make my dreams come true” or “I can amass lots of money on my own”, but in reality, “Others help us to make our dreams come true” and “Others help us to become rich.” An overvalued individual, winner -take all-approach to thinking about how to live with others in society is misguided. I think the more useful way to think of our experiences is to think about what occurs between people, and how we as a society begin to talk about these moments we share.
Moments are different for many people, and sometimes those moments are influenced by how other people relate to immutable characteristics, such as ethnic heritage, skin color, weight, gender identity, sex, sexual orientation, or age. People can respond to these characteristics as if it is something that pollutes their environment, or they can stop to hear how people experience themselves in relationship to others, as it might be related to these characteristics. By acknowledging difference in others doesn’t mean that you are trying to separate others from yourself….it is possible for people to feel that you care about their experience by asking honest and open questions, given that all of us share times when we were treated differently because of immutable characteristics. This is not making the other person a victim by acknowledging that someone in their life may have treated them differently because of their sex or age, but instead we increase the changes that we will have a moment for people to share their experiences of racism, sexism, or prejudice.
Racist, sexist and other ill formed thoughts that invade our mind can also be thought of as mind pollutants, by-products of living in a racist, sexist, and class based society. Mind pollutants, whether created from our mind or given to us through the psychologically sick air of another person, can destroy the quality of our life’s moments. Mind pollutants, the thoughts and feelings that corrode the integral parts of our consciousness. Mind pollutants that whittle away at our value system, our emotions, and create psychologically toxic environments.
I don’t really know when or how I thought of racist and sexist thoughts as a form of mind pollution. Thoughts do form over time and sometimes intertwine. With the recent awarding of the Nobel Peace prize to former Vice President, Al Gore, for his work on trying to save our earth, I have been thinking more deeply about my connection to the environment. Thankfully we have evolved as a human species by realizing the detrimental harm caused by environmental pollution, for example, cancer causing smoke that puffs from a factory chimney, or the effects of second hand cigarette smoke blown in our face from a person who may be addicted to nicotine, or pollutants from aerosol cans that are harmful to the ozone level. Our ability or willingness to go green and to save our earth shows that we have compassion in our heart. Our efforts to combat environmental toxins most likely led me to think that there must be a way for us to combat psychological toxins.
Nooses and other racist symbols (or racist symbols as mind pollutants).
I had a very difficult moment on October 11, 2007, after learning, a psychologist and educator who also is an African American woman, discovered a noose hung on her door. Nooses were (and most likely are) used as symbols of intense hatred, racism, as a threat of impending violence for many African American men and women in the late 1800s and beyond. According to researchers who track the use of racist symbols, noose hangings have been identified about 5 times per year.
Nooses, and their intended meaning of making groups of people to feel under threat, those that suggest hurt or possible harm are social mind pollutants. These types of acts cannot be ignored as meaningless or as inconsequential. Just like we cannot ignore the effects of first hand or second hand smoke on our lungs, we should not ignore symbolic and concrete meaning of nooses. We should not wait until things get worse, because we should know from history that more harmful things might come when we do not act in a timely fashion. History does not have to repeat itself. We should not let racist inspired hate crimes go ignored, and if we do, it will be like living with a planet that has melting ice that may have our whole ecosystem teetering on virtual collapse. We need to attack these forms of mind pollutants, more specifically create better environments so those people who pollute our psychological air, can be identified quickly and helped to become less toxic.
My class, a social psychology and diversity course I teach at a local School of Professional Psychology talked about the noose incident for the entire class period. My graduate students, who are striving to become psychotherapists, understood that symbols of racism were wrong but they also had questions about why someone would do something like this, was it a sign of mental illness, what are hate crimes and how are they defined? Many felt helpless about what to do. I watched as students struggled through what this event might mean, and even greater how they as budding therapists would deal with the questions of race and racism in their therapy work. As a side note, before I could finish writing this article, another incident occurred in the same department where the noose was found, a swastika was painted on the door of a Jewish woman professor’s door. This is the world my students will inherit and I want them to know that these types of hate crimes will not be a part of my legacy.
We all know someone in our life that makes sexist remarks, holds ill will toward people of different races, and so forth. We want to help them not be the way they are, but many of us feel defeated because we live under a psychologically derived mantra (that plays constantly in our heads) that goes something like this, “I can only change myself”. I think this approach to the power of our ability to change others is wrong. In fact others can change when we take the time to understand their feelings, their perceptions of their experiences, and then help them to understand their feelings and perceptions of their experiences differently. Seek to understand and then to be understood, I recall reading somewhere along the way.
These people need our help to begin reconnecting to the world they live in, to experience less fear and more joy that can be found in valuing difference. I believe that hate is born of fear. The mind polluters, as I have tried to describe our fearful and sometimes lonely people, need our help. We have come to place in our evolutionary cycle that we can no longer place these people into our “Just doesn’t get it” category. We can no longer begin the process of renegotiating our relationship because this person may be our boss, partner, girlfriend or roommate. The quality of the psychological air that we breathe necessitates social change across all of our relationships. I know that negotiating power and challenging racial and sexist stereotypes is not an easy proposition. But it can be done as shown to us by others, for example, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Dr. King and more.
Let the negotiation have deeper meanings as we have tried to openly change they way we currently negotiate and live in our environments. Human relationships involve the sharing of moments and we can no longer interact with each other as if we are immovable objects. We do not have to treat other people around like rocks that we have to climb over or walk around because of their limited understandings about race, sex, or other differences. We can change the psychological mantra of “everybody only work on changing one’s self, which can be a message of disempowerment. We can imbue us with the power to change the moments we share with each other. Through changing these moments with others we bring them closer to a new way of being in the world, where people don’t become unthinking objects driven by commercialism. Instead we restore our environment with grace, humility and respect for our differences. When we allow us to feel for others, we can change the way we think and thus change the way we behave. If we can work together to save a tree, why can’t we try to save the heart and soul of humankind?