A few years ago on a plane ride, it was fairly obvious that the guy sitting next to me was interested in chatting. I’m not a big fan of talking to strangers on planes: I was socially distant before it was fashionable. After telling me of his accomplishments and successes in life (yawn!!), he went on to lament that too many people are taking advantage of social safety net programs. As an aside, one wonders why the poor never complain about people abusing the system only those who have more. Hmmm.
To support his position, my seat-mate relayed a story I had heard before; it’s been propagated online, about minority women living in cheap motels having a constant stream of children to collect government benefits, instead of getting a job. When he was finished, all I could ask, perhaps a little too bluntly, was in what reality he thought that a woman would put themselves through the physical and other challenges of childbirth to collect a relatively meager financial subsidy. Although he was taken aback, his response was perhaps reasonable: “with all of the information swirling around, how do you know what’s true or what to believe?” What indeed!
It’s been said many times that the internet has been a “game changer” in so many ways: good, bad and ugly. In the pre-internet world, back when people actually interacted face to face, it was easier to assess the veracity and legality of what we encountered. For instance, you might think twice about signing up for financial planning services at the same location where they are offering payday loans or cheque cashing services. Online though, it’s very easy to put up a credible edifice, so that even dubious groups and organizations can look as legitimate and upright as everyone else. If we are to address this new challenge, and not find ourselves being misled, we really need to be in touch with who we are, our values and what’s going on in hearts. Allow me to elaborate.
All of us have biases and prejudices. In fact if we don’t acknowledge our preferences or pretend they don’t exist, they become even more of an issue. I saw it very clearly when interviewing people in corporate America. We each tended to gravitate to candidates most like ourselves in some ways. It was hard to be fair and balanced and we needed to put in place some objective controls to ensure we made reasonably good hiring decisions.
Psychologists warn us of “projection”: that is, unconsciously taking unwanted emotions or traits you don't like about yourself and attributing them to someone else. For example, if you have a tendency to bend the truth, you might be suspicious of the integrity of others. Today, when we might feel inclined to believe that certain races or communities are terrorists, rapists, criminals, lazy, or perhaps we subscribe to some of the conspiracy theories that try and pit us against one another, we need to stop and ask ourselves, where these thoughts are coming from and why are we giving credence to them?
Jesus challenged us to not be afraid; not so much to try and avoid fear, but not to act out of fear, so that we see everyone as an individual and as a child of God. A good warning sign or indicator that we might be drifting from our calling is when we start to think of people as groups rather than individuals and to see them as somehow different from ourselves.
There’s a credit card commercial on TV where Samuel L. Jackson asks, “What's in your wallet?” The question and opportunity for us these days, is perhaps not to react to our own negative impulses, but to go a little deeper, to see if we are truly living out of a spirit of love. And to perhaps paraphrase, Mr. Jackson, ask ourselves: what’s in our heart?