It’s easy to call the things we don’t understand “weird”. It’s natural that when we aren’t accustomed to a person, or a place, or a thing, suddenly a feeling of apprehension may rise up inside of us. Often times when a situation gets weird, what it really becomes is something we have yet to understand.
I fall prey to relying on my ego like any other well-meaning human. I get nervous and my armpits start sweating when I’m forced to openly deal with situations that unfurl outside of my comfort zone. Thankfully, crows feet and stretch marks advance with wisdom. I am at least aware of this universal fear; being the last one to know, or worse, being totally wrong about something in the face of others. This shame that accompanies a lack of knowledge thwarts me from moving forward, prevents me from asking questions, distracts me from actively listening to an offered explanation, and ultimately halts me from being the best version of myself. I should be proudly demanding a better understanding of the world around me, not shrinking from my duty as a lifelong learner.
Unfortunately, our egos seem to retaliate at the first signs of humility, throwing out an obstruction to block the concepts that we haven’t collected enough information about. Instead of displaying the vulnerability necessary to learn something new, we resort to quickly labeling something: “That is so gross…” “He seems really strange...” “You’re weird...” What we are really sharing about ourselves with these statements is that we haven’t yet learned anything necessary to make an honest judgment. The ego says, who cares, say something quick. And out comes the least bit of knowledge we have; “Whoa, what a freak…”
All these labels got me thinking about prejudice; those thoughts that determine who or what someone is based on an accumulation of brain garbage: like bottom of the pyramid jokes, about sexism, race, or disabled people; “harmless” and oh so foundational for all the “real” hurt that we condemn at the apex level. I can’t make it through an 80’s family movie now without pausing multiple times to explain to my kids why someone would find domestic violence or overt sexual objectification entertaining, or why people of color are demeaned into portraying one type of character over and over. These were the movies that raised me. It takes effort to peel the labels away and see things for what they truly are.
As a mom, my job is to fill in the blanks a handful of times a day as my children discover new things and inadvertently quiz me on them. My prejudices become discriminations once they are out of my head, acting as a guide to my kids. My first defense against foolishly labeling things is to harness enough strength to get vulnerable. Channel your inner Brene Brown and give other people in your immediate vicinity courage to do the same. Say bold things like “I know nothing about that” or “I am open to learning about that”.
Prejudice is a sneaky F’er. It can disguise itself as well-meaning; like telling a kid who's worked hard to achieve something that he or she is “smart”. It’s a compliment that adults once dished out to us as children, and we now feel compelled to do the same. My son labors through long division, and gets the wrong answer, and starts over, and fails again, and through tears and my insistence, he tries again. He has the right answer now. And my prize to him is this label; “you are so smart”, an empty compliment that’s got negative consequences down the road.
Later, when he is without my praise, and the world around him gets unclear, or complicated, will he remember that I told him over and over that he was smart? His ego will have grown with his size, and he may choose to rely on what I told him instead of identifying and dealing with confusion. He may refuse the lesson, or the struggle to understand, based on all that he already knows because he’s “smart”. “That looks lame” he may say, about some kid performing a monologue; about a girl asking him to dance at Sadie Hawkins; about a backpacking trip to the desert with some friends... Smart people know things, they don’t actively engage with new concepts that look challenging. Being smart is a full-time job, and if it’s the nicest compliment someone has given you, why wouldn’t you work against trying new things or ideas in order to keep being the same old smart?
What I needed at his current age was someone to glorify failing. If someone had demonstrated that wrong answers lead to right ones, that being good at one thing doesn’t mean you aren’t capable of struggling towards victory in other areas, I would have been less likely to throw in the towel on so many things that I was curious about. I could have had the liberty to try the things that only my heart knew I wanted. Imagine a grown up not complimenting a young girl on how pretty she is, or how strong her brother is, and instead asking them with positive vigor, “what challenged you most today?”
How can we get past our first line of defense, our ever ready egos, and respond to new situations with carefree curiosity? Let’s be baffled and enthralled and let labels have the day off. What if we placed more value on wondering? I am attempting to parent by harnessing the magic of learning. It’s painful sometimes, addressing the plethora of things that I don't know. I am grateful each time my quest to understand leads me to ever more brilliant questions. I strive to be a student of life and hope to give you permission to do the same.