A Story of Prejudice
Some years ago, I was in a village in India. My colleague Pandi had told me earlier that week,
“Mircea, you have to come to my village, Naduvapatti. We are having a fire-walking festival.”
A fire-walking festival? Wow, absolutely!
So there I was, at the edge of a three-meter runway of hot, glowing coals, taking photos of dozens of villagers from 7 to 70 years old walking on fire. Surrounded by flashy white smiles on dark brown skin and stewing in an inhuman heat, it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life abroad.
Fast forward to last year, when I was invited to give a presentation about my travels at the local theological high school in my city. Among all the stories, of course I told them about the fire-walking festival. We were looking at photos of all these villagers walking on burning coals when one of the kids suddenly laughed and said, “Ha ha, they are preparing for Hell!”
Suddenly, there was this angry voice in my head shouting, “What an ignorant kid! How can he say that? Does he know anything about these people? Does he even know anything about Hinduism? He is so judgmental, and I am so angry!” My inner reaction was so strong that I sort of froze. I mumbled something, quickly finished my presentation, and ran off. The voice in my head stayed with me for a few more days, though, running through the incident over and over. That is, until I realized something:
I was doing the exact same thing I felt the kid had done: I was judging.
I had made myself morally superior. And that was not constructive. I wasn’t learning anything. This wasn’t helping the student or my beloved fire-walking Indians. Or my inner peace, for that matter. And I realized that my reaction during the presentation had been wrong. I hadn’t listened. I had heard, interpreted, and promptly began an interminable dialogue—in my own head.
And what would have been the correct reaction on my part? Why, to listen, of course. To actively listen to what the other person had to say. Because of the judgmental voice in my head, I had missed the chance to get to know the kid, understand the reasons behind his remark, and discover what made him a valuable person.
Being an active listener requires a certain internal attitude that will allow us to go beyond our own impressions and expectations. More concretely, it is an openness that allows us to recognize value in others.
However, first of all, it naturally requires…silence. That means no judge, teacher, victim, avenger, moralist, or any other voices that our own prejudices usually manifest as in our heads. And this is what tomorrow’s lesson is all about!
“Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible.”
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