6,000 Degrees of Separation: The Countless Ways We Disassociate From "The Others"

This article is for those that are more willing to point out the wrong in others than the wrong in themselves. This article is for those that are capable of judging every book by its cover, but are never willing to read the story. This article is for those that are too afraid to expand their world beyond their own, fearing their life isn’t as significant as they currently believe.

This article is for you. This article is for me. This article is for everybody—because, to some degree, we are all guilty of the above, and we deserve to be called out on it.

I want to invite you to a discussion that serves two purposes: one, to keep our hearts and minds open to the uniqueness of individual circumstance and two, to develop a reaction of “listen, think, act” instead of following our gut instinct which allows us to jump straight to subconscious, self-serving action. If you would like to join this discussion, continue reading below, otherwise, come back another time when your mind is open and clear—ready for self-examination.

Judgment: My Hidden Talent

To set the stage and form a better connection between myself and the reader (a.k.a. you), I want to quickly talk about the fruitless judgements I'm guilty of on a daily basis.

Near the top of this list are "helmetless" cyclists. Whenever I see someone riding a bicycle through the streets of downtown Washington DC without a helmet, I instantly think to myself, “what an idiot.” I don't consider their circumstance and I certainly don't run up next to them and politely ask why they have made such a decision. Instead, I skip the listening and thinking, and I go straight to the unvalidated conclusion—or in keeping with the theme, the self-serving action.

We see it as a prime opportunity to separate ourselves from “the others,” and it is so overwhelmingly accepted, we are able to publicly display our opinion with little to no backlash from our peers.

Further examples include slow walkers, disengaged waiters, and people who take the elevator to the second floor—which is really hypocritical because I'm guilty of that myself. I start with these examples because they form the basis of how unthinkably far we have to go to break this habit of judgment.

I'm not judging someone because they committed some heinous crime or because they purposefully set out to make my day as bad as possible. No, I'm judging because I clearly have nothing better to do with my thoughts than to use the harmless actions and behaviors of others as brick and mortar for my pedestal of superiority—building higher and higher so I can look down upon society at their simpleton ways.

The Non-Linearity of our Judgments

The most significant realization I have made in all of this judgment is the jaggedness or incongruity or unpredictability of when and why I will choose to judge one situation over another. And this realization hit me like a ton of bricks after seeing another disheartening example of the complexity of human nature on none other than social media—of course.

The above post comes from a framework of thinking that is likely large enough to fit the majority of the general population. Society's less than diverse opinion on the homeless population is one of the more prevalent examples of our collective, quick-to-judge mindsets. We see it as a prime opportunity to separate ourselves from "the others," and it is so overwhelmingly accepted, we are able to publicly display our opinion with little to no backlash from our peers.

Well, in this situation, I'm going to provide the backlash.

First and foremost, the intentional emphasis on "SIX" already presents a host of issues. If it were only one, would you have spared the individual from judgment? If it were only one, would you feel less "uncomfortable" because the fact that there are over 500,000 people in America without a roof over their head on any given night would be less visible? Some questions to ponder.

Now, let's talk about what made you really upset—because if it were simply "six beggars," you wouldn't have been so inclined to cry foul. What really got your head spinning was the fact one of these individuals owned an iPhone and had the audacity to put it on display for the world to see—WHILE ASKING FOR FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE. 

I'm sure the thoughts that ran through your head were no different than most. Why doesn't he use the cash for sustenance? Why doesn't he prioritize his spending on the necessities, so he can start saving money to obtain housing, a job, etc.? He clearly has friends or family, so why can't he keep his problems in those circles and quit putting them in front of me?

There are so many ways I could address these questions, but instead of turning this into a one-way Q&A, I want to tell a story.

Humanity Starts With A Question

I arrived in Washington DC on July 17th, 2015. Three days later, I was starting my first salaried-position at an office right on the border of DC and Maryland—those corporate strategists know where to find the good tax rates.

During my first few weeks, I began to notice a man posted up against a railing at the bottom of a staircase leading away from the parking garage and down toward the metro. In a low, grungy tone, he half-heartedly sang "if you can spare some change..."

As the weeks went by and Morgan and I began getting our heads above water after initially drowning in the exorbitant costs of DC housing, I became more and more conscious of this man's existence. Sad, right? It's sad how we can get so caught up in our lives that we ignore the plight of others—regardless of our physical or emotional distance to them.

Anyway, I ultimately decided I was going to start setting aside some funds, so I could donate to this man on a weekly basis. Two or three weeks went by, and the man expressed gratitude after each giving, but once again, this didn't feel right. What is so important/busy about my life that I can't engage in a conversation with this man? The answer was "nothing."

After a few semesters, he dropped out, got in trouble with drugs and the law, and spent multiple years behind bars—as lost as he was the day he was born.

So, the next time I reached in my pocket, I asked the two simplest questions any of us can afford to a fellow human: "how are you doing?" and "what is your name?"

This simple attempt to connect developed into 10 months worth of weekly conversations that included political and religious discussion, sharing of our childhood upbringing and current family structure, friendly disagreements on a variety of issues, and more.

The man's name is Perry, he's in his late sixties, has two sons and three grandkids, and as he expressed, has the clarity of thought today that would have taken him on a more prosperous life path had it come to him when he was younger.

Born out of a culture that is more than prevalent today, he made his way to college via a basketball scholarship at Florida A&M University. All he wanted to do was play ball. Academics were just the side deal of doing so.

After a few semesters, he dropped out, got in trouble with drugs and the law, and spent multiple years behind bars—as lost as he was the day he was born. Over time, he kicked his bad habits, supported his sons to the best of his ability, and continues to be present in the lives of his grandkids—ages two through seven—who live in the DC area.

Various times throughout the year, he'll sleep in his son's house to get some much needed rest—particularly when his health is sliding. Just before meeting Perry, he had open heart surgery the summer before, and this June, he suffered a minor stroke that took away feeling in his left arm and hand. Two days after this health scare, he was back in his usual spot, asking for the generosity of others.

If Perry wants to use the money he is given today to speak with a friend tomorrow, I’m more than happy to support that decision.

Due to the low-wage jobs his son and his son's partner are employed in, Perry's primary objective is to get food on the table for his grandkids. Next is food for himself and reloading his phone with minutes for phone-calls, which, as you may have guessed, brings us back to the Facebook post we started with.

How can he afford to buy a phone—and yes, a smartphone, nonetheless? Why should I donate money to this man if he is buying things other than food? Why don't I just buy food instead of giving cash—that's still honorable, right?

The Value of Communication

Let's address the first question. How much do you value your ability to remain connected with your friends and loved ones? For the younger generations, how much do you value the ability to endlessly scroll through Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and on, and on? 

No matter what form of communication you value, one of the last things you would ever want to have happen is to be put in the solitary confinement of the social world. The world is a dark and lonely place when you lack the accessibility to develop a personal connection with other people.

Whether you desire one or two close friends or 1,000 sociable acquaintances, there is a need to be filled and one that boosts our mental and physical health. If you can accept this fact, let's look at this need through the eyes of Perry.

If you are living day to day on the city streets, you will find yourself stuck between a rock and a hard place. The rock is society at large—the majority of folks with a roof over their heads, food in their stomachs, and a blissful ignorance to the experiences of everyone outside their social circles.

The hard place is virtually everyone else without a home—every man and woman for themselves, staking out their territory to ask for money, a place to sleep. Establishing as much personal safety that can be found when their mind and body are exposed to everyone and everything 24/7. Trust no one but yourself.

The need for power is most easily filled when we eliminate a person’s freedom to choose.

So where do you go to fill your social needs? You can't force strangers to spark up a conversation with you. It's hard enough squeezing a dollar from their pocket. You can engage in cautious conversation with other street dwellers, but will always have to keep your guard up. 

You have a few numbers still bouncing around your distraught mind, so you find a way to get your hands on a phone, load it with some data and reach out to anyone still willing to talk to you. It's not ideal, but it does bring an immense amount of calm to your soul—a sensation once forgotten.

So, if Perry wants to use the money he is given today to speak with a friend tomorrow, I'm more than happy to support that decision. As a side-note, not that it should matter, Perry's phone was actually purchased by another passerby—with a more liquid bank account than my own, so he received his tool of communication via another act of kindness.

Taking Away the Freedom to Choose

Now, let's address the other two questions—why should Perry purchase anything other than food with my money?

I want to break this question down into a few different parts, so I'll start with the big picture and work my way down to the specific question being asked. With that, let's see if I can't paint a clear picture on why this question is incredibly self-righteous and points at the selfish desire we all have to feel more powerful, significant, or to the furthest extreme, more human than someone else.

The Central West African nation of Cameroon is dubbed “Africa in miniature” thanks to its diverse ecological landscape and ethnic cultures. From the dense rainforests of the South region to the desolate deserts of the Extreme North, it is incredible how a nation similar in size to the state of Oregon can have such a dramatic shift in climate.

If this story doesn’t highlight the extremes mankind will go to divide and conquer, I’m not sure what else will.

I spent a little less than six months in this beautiful country between 2014 and 2015, but during my time, I was told a story that has stuck with me since the day I heard it. This story pops in my mind pretty regularly, and is ripe for the context of this writing.

In the desert wasteland of the Extreme North there are villages rich in culture but low on resources. This makes it difficult to divide the community into different sects based on the usual tenets of wealth and prosperity. Since there is a general inability for anyone to claim power based on economic prowess alone, the patriarchal society decided to pursue a different route to obtain superior status.

When chicken is on the menu, the men are the only people allowed to consume the innards—which was comical to the local Cameroonian who told me this story because everyone agrees this is the least tasty part. However, they created a mythology of sorts to say the innards were a magical source of strength that only men could handle, therefore making it more desirable from a cultural perspective.

If this story doesn't highlight the extremes mankind will go to divide and conquer, I'm not sure what else will. For me, it is the rawest example of what we all desire when we succumb to a need for power rather than a need for compassion and connection.

The need for power is most easily filled when we eliminate a person's freedom to choose. Knowing we have control over the decisions they do or do not make gives us an unmatchable feeling of elitism. Take this power away and we will find other ways to obtain it. Now let's move this discussion closer to home.

When life has beaten you down to the point where the only thing you own are the clothes on your back and the shoes on your feet, the manner in which you choose to separate your mind from the reality of your pain is your business.

After spending two years of my collegiate career working with my peers to build and maintain Tiger Pantry—a university food pantry for students, faculty, and staff—I learned a lot about the unique struggles each of our clients were facing.

Some folks were students dealing with the outrageous cost burden of higher education. Some faculty and staff were faced with difficult financial decisions due to the lack of health coverage provided by the university. Others still were simply trying to make due in the final week of the month when their paycheck just couldn't stretch any further.

Story after story—some explicitly told, some realistically imagined—taught me one important lesson above all else: the freedom to choose is a sacred right held close to everyone's heart. When our shelves were well stocked and food options diverse, clients were delighted to be able to select items they preferred and skip on the ones they didn't.

When every other aspect of their lives held a hard and fast answer regardless of want, this ability to select what would go in their stomachs was a welcomed relief. This experience has expanded well beyond the pantry doors.

Whenever I hear people's opinions about the "proper" way to donate to a homeless man or woman, I can't help but cringe. Fears of alcohol or drug abuse are always at the top of the list, but with the stories I have cited above, I have thrown these thoughts out the window.

When life has beaten you down to the point where the only thing you own are the clothes on your back and the shoes on your feet, the manner in which you choose to separate your mind from the reality of your pain is your business. And if I can provide that comfort, I will do so without hesitation.

We all seek this comfort in one way or another. Many people find solace at the bottom of a bottle, but their decision is normalized through our happy-hour culture and "as long as you're not drinking alone" mentalities. Others choose to escape reality via fictional novels and movies—imagining what life would be like with Harry's wand or Bruce Wayne's invisibility. And for folks like me, we gorge ourselves with sweets to take our minds off the realities surrounding us.

Each of us, free to choose our escape routes at a moments notice, yet unwilling to deliver this escape to others unable to obtain such serenity on their own accord. We aren't inherently bad people, we just fail to recognize the not so different needs of fellow strangers—particularly those we don't feel any connection to.

My Final Hope

If you've made it this far down the rabbit hole, thank you for joining me. With all of the opinions above, there is one thing I hope you gain from this: the further we choose to compare our actions to those of someone else, picking apart everything the other person does "wrong," the further we separate ourselves from the civil society we claim to desire.

The more we decide to play judge and jury, the more we decide it is within our right to force others into the world that is best for our personal gain, and the more we decide to shut ourselves off from the unique life experiences of everyone around us, the more we will create a climate of division and fear.

All of these thoughts stemmed from a simple post on social media, but they extend into the far reaches of our cultural makeup. From here, I will leave it up to you to draw parallels from your life and connect it to many other events that are currently taking place around the United States and the world. Remember, when we let life in—most importantly, the lives of others—we level up our minds to build a society fit to be called "civilized." I don't think we're there yet, but I remain optimistic we will arrive.

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