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Prisons and Prisoners

We are all of us victims of our perceptions. The way we see the world colors everything we do. Some of us build walls around ourselves with them. The walls can be a transparent membrane that allows things to flow in and out, while others are high stone walls that nothing and nobody penetrates.

There are those who will look at a gay man and see a pervert. There are those who look at a football player and see a brutal, ignorant jerk. There are those who will look at a woman who is fond of sex and see a slut. How we view those people is largely dependent on how we see the world.

That’s where dogma comes in. Throughout our lives, particularly as we’re growing up, we are preached to by adults who have agendas of their own. We are told that certain sorts of people are bad, undesirable, evil. We are told that other sorts are good and are to be embraced and emulated. Those lessons are often with us the rest of our lives; we put people into the boxes we’re told to and often, without thinking about it much. Certainly that’s an easier way to go.

But what if we could change all that? Rather than classify people, we just accepted them as individuals and didn’t form opinions as to what neat little descriptor fits them – housewife, professional, athlete, and rapper. We just take people at face value. Judging books by their covers, as it were, would become archaic, much like using “thee” and “thou.”

However, we tend not to do that. With all the thousands of people we interact with and encounter on a regular basis, we have to be able to compartmentalize them to a certain extent – our brains really can’t handle single categories for every person we meet. That is why we compartmentalize, divide people into a kind of filing system that helps us identify who they are and allow us to form an opinion. Wacky Uncle Jerry might start out in the family folder, and then go into the Canadian sub-folder, eh? After that, there’s the Beer Drinking folder, the football fan sub-folder, and the quirky sense of humor sub-folder after that. When you throw in the generous sub-folder, the Liberal sub-folder and the folk music listening ex-hippie sub-folder that gets to be a lot of sub-folders.

Of course when it comes to family, we don’t really do that kind of file work. Family folders go into the heart where we just love all of them unconditionally. Friends pretty much get the same treatment until they piss us off; then they go into the penalty box until they’re back in our good graces. Sometimes, they never get back into our good graces so  they head into the furnace room with all the other people we don’t like.

It gets dicier with acquaintances and strangers. That’s where we start using the opinions that have been preached to us by churches, schools, parents and the media since we were old enough to stop drooling uncontrollably. We assign people into boxes that are easily identifiable, assigning them traits that fit inside that box. Firemen, for example, are brave, handsome and tend to pose for calendars bare-chested. Used car salesmen are manipulative, untrustworthy and would sell their own mothers a Yugo if it would get them their quota.

Of course, not everyone fits into these neat little descriptions. I’ve known firefighters who have pot bellies and used car salesmen who were as honest as the day is long. However these are things we tend to ignore – does not compute, so we have to change the box. The non-hunky fireman becomes a little league coach. The honest used car salesman becomes a Boy Scout troupe leader. Same people, same jobs, different categories.

There are those who apply these boxes to large groups. Mexicans are lazy, shiftless and out to steal American jobs. Black people are lazy, shiftless and cranking out welfare babies by the dozen when they aren’t selling crack. Gay people are perverts out to recruit children to their nefarious cause. When we do this, it’s called stereotyping and it’s a bad thing.

So why do we do it with smaller groups? Football players are not all ignorant, sex-crazed jocks. Star Trek fans – Trekkers – are not all pimply faced geeks with a staggering storage of minutiae that nobody but them care about and dress up as Vulcans, basically exiling them to Nevergetlaidland. I’ve met intelligent jocks and Trekkers who are ruggedly handsome and score chicks at will.

We build ourselves prisons with our pre-conceived notions. It dooms us to a life sentence of never really getting to know people. You may look at someone and see a redneck. I see decent hard-working salt-of-the-earth who likes country music and monster trucks, but also is the first in line to volunteer when people are in need. You might look at a corporate CEO and see a greedy, unrepentant amoral scumbag who is out to rape the entire globe of every penny they can, but I also see a family man who contributes heavily to charity, has worked hard to get ahead and is amazingly articulate and intelligent. People surprise you sometimes.

If we are to be prisoners of our preconceptions that cut us off from experiencing things we might have gotten the chance to otherwise. By believing that conservatives are stodgy old white men who are political luddites more concerned with their pocket books rather than the welfare of all, you might miss out on some truly intelligent, caring people who have a great deal to add to the conversation. That’s an error I often make myself.

Looking out at the world means that sometimes the big picture is too big. The devil is in the details but so is the beauty. Seeing individual components for what they are individually rather than how they fit into that big picture opens one up to seeing things differently. Then, maybe your perception of the entire big picture changes and you see things from a fresh perspective. For me, that’s as exciting as Christmas Day opening presents – the world is a gift that keeps on giving from that regard.

As long as we hold on to what we think we know, we cannot make way for reality. You want to really, truly be a wise person? Understand one basic fact of life; we are all absolutely ignorant morons and the sooner we realize that we know NOTHING the quicker we will begin to accept that we have a lot to learn and become open to learning. This is where the path of wisdom leads and that is the bridge that gets us there, but you cannot get there if you’re still a prisoner wandering aimlessly in the exercise yard of the prison built for you by your parents, the church, your schools, your friends – all those who influenced you and told you “this is the way things are.” Break down those walls. Free yourself. Walk down that path to wisdom. You don’t have to be a genius to do it; you just have to be willing to try.


3 Responses

  1. How we perceive, our perceptions, how we react, our actions, creates our life. It is important to see clearly. Well written.

  2. Quite well written, as usual, Carlos. I believe that while it’s unavoidable to develop “prejudices of observation” as one experiences life, it’s important to start with a clean slate for each individual you meet.

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