Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 4

Singer Marion Anderson shakes hands with Secretary of the Interior Ickes during the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial.  Interactions like this make a big difference in shaping peoples’ views.

One way that we hold our own identities intact is by surrounding ourselves with like minded people and influences.  This tactic is becoming progressively easier to carry out because the online world gives us more opportunity to connect with people of our specific choosing and to reinforce our deeply held assumptions about the world and the people who inhabit it.  We give ourselves the benefit of distance from opposing viewpoints. While we cannot talk someone out of this reality he’s created, we can introduce them to people whose stories and presence may lead him to his own change of heart.

The key to today’s reality shifting trick is to disrupt a previously held belief by introducing a flesh and blood person who challenges that belief, or who that belief harms. Recent research shows that compassion is an integral part of human nature.  Encounters with those in need or those who need help trigger a compassionate response and build our compassionate nature.

For instance, countless stories and interviews of how soldiers in combat act compassionately toward enemies were studied in order to find causality. Results showed that when faced in person with their enemies, or in particular when looking into the eyes of their enemy, soldiers found humanity in their enemy.  This led soldiers to deliberately miss their target, to not use their weapon at all, and even to come to the aid of an injured or in need enemy.

How to use this knowledge in our world:

  1. Same place, new people
    • Choose a comfortable environment with homogeneous group of people.
    • Examples could be your gym, your favorite bar, or your 4th of July picnic.
    • Invite people from a different culture or background.
    • Actively introduce and facilitate connections.
  2. My enemy is my teammate
    • Sports bring people together, and this is a quick way to put a human face on a stranger.
    • Create a game, league, or meetup that includes people from different backgrounds, cultures, or viewpoints.
    • Divide teams in a way that rather evenly distributes those people onto each team.  That’s pretty much the end of your work, the rest comes naturally.
    • Teammates cooperate, learn names, and play with a common cause, all which facilitate looking at each other as individuals and compassion.
    • If there aren’t high fives going on, you may want to start that trend. “Pro social behavior” such as high fives, pats on the back/butt, chest bumps, and fist bumps promote cooperative behavior.
  3. Full belly, happy heart
    • Find a local restaurant run by someone from a different culture. Here in Lexington we have authentic Mexican, West-African, Mediterranean, and Greek locally run and operated by immigrants and refugees.
    •  Treat your counterpart out to a night out at one of these restaurants.
    • Talk to the server or owner and get to know the story behind the restaurant and the people who created it.
    • Sharing meals is a known way to build trust and cultivate relationships. This is a little way to mimic that process.
    • Also, food is a big part of culture and valuing the food is one way to value and understand another culture.

The bottom line is that compassion is hard wired into each of us.  Computers, phones and television can get in the way of that natural instinct, but when we are face-to-face with others, our altruistic behaviors kick in.  When we personally know and like someone who is affected by decisions we make, we make decisions more carefully and more likely to benefit that person.

Be creative and mindful with how you cross cultures.  We never want to put anyone in dangerous situations, but outside of that, the sky’s the limit.  Discomfort and unease may be a part of the equation, but new research from UK shows that these feelings decrease over time and are felt less by those without prejudice and minorities than those with prejudice and in the majority.