Letters to my sons

A collection of thoughts and lessons I've learned along the way for my little men,
and anyone else that's interested.

My sons,

Everything about our natural world tells us to stay in the safety of those that are like us. In the wild, while certain species may be willing to coexist in the same environment as one another, by and large everything in our natural world sticks close with those of its kind. We never see birds of different species flying in graceful formation together, or packs of deer mixed with buffalo running together. In fact, it is far more common to have a pecking order, to have predator and prey.

Growing up as a Chinese immigrant in Canada, that natural order was made immediately clear in every possible social realm. If you were athletic, you hung out with the other athletic kids. If you were a music nerd, you hung out with other music nerds. If you were an Asian kid in a predominantly white class, you naturally gravitated towards the other two Asian kids.

This is natural, but suboptimal.

It is true that birds of a feather flock together, and there is much benefit in that. Shared context, a common background and upbringing, even similar value systems all lower the barrier to connection and understanding. Not having to explain cultural norms and traditions certainly makes it easier to bring people together.

Easier isn’t always better though.

In fact, I’ve found that in many, if not most cases, easier is generally not better. Quite the contrary. When we have to work for it, when it takes effort, when it requires diligence and perseverance, it (whatever it happens to be) is generally much better. It therefore behooves us to understand this dynamic as it applies to the most important element of human society: relationships.

Natural outsiders

In every society there are outsiders. Because of the bountiful diversity that exists across the human race, there are infinitely many criteria which we can use to create groups, and thereby create a dynamic of those inside the group, and those outside. Add to that our strong beliefs, biases, and experiences, and any group can become not just an outsider, but an adversarial outsider. Jews. Christians. Women. Immigrants. Poor. Sick.

I believe that people naturally fall into three categories:

  1. People who create outsiders
  2. People who are excluded
  3. People who stand by and watch

Evolutionary forces create a strong desire for us to be included, accepted, and welcomed into the clan, and social history has shown that there are few easier ways to be included than to create a group to exclude. Just look at any average schoolyard. Not only are all three categories always clearly present, but children will move from one category to another seamlessly depending on the day, the activities being done, and the children in attendance.

I certainly experienced all of those categories over the years. One of my early memories included some of my friends deciding to “betray” a particular person in our group for some (real or imagined) slight. This involved a bunch of us sneaking back into the classroom at recess and moving the person’s desk into some remote corner of the class, separate from our cluster. While I don’t remember being the one to initiate the “betrayal” (fully admitting that this may be my unconscious mind trying to forget), I certainly stood by and watched as we actively and intentionally excluded others.

No longer an adolescent, I’ve begun to see that there is a fourth potential category. This category is unnatural, and requires intention, dedication, and persistence to create. This is the category of people who bring outsiders inside.

Including the excluded

When people are pushed to the margins, when they are excluded, that is when trouble happens. Practically every large scale conflict in history has been rooted in some sort of exclusion of some group. History is replete with warnings and examples of what happens when we exclude, of the many crises that unfold as a result. Our current day geo-political situation is chalk full of this type of conflict.

The first step in many crises is to include the excluded.

This is counterintuitive for humanity because we are evolutionarily predisposed to avoid things not like us. Our fight or flight instincts have been honed over hundreds of millennia such that our bodies instinctively detect same-ness and not-same-ness, and instinctively prefer same-ness. This makes it very natural for us to exclude those that are in the not-same camp.

If we struggle well against that nature, however, and intentionally learn to include the excluded, a great many things happen.

  1. We lift people up. When we include those on the fringes, we lift them out of a feeling of isolation, adversity, and survival and into one of belonging, collaboration, and flourishing.
  2. We make our world better. It is well studied and documented that diversity brings about a better world, that listening to one another, learning with and from one another, and partnering with one another brings about longer and lasting change. When we include the excluded and learn from each other, we are able to release our focus on the not-same-ness and focus on the things that we have in common, and in doing so make our world better.
  3. We elevate our thoughts and adopt a posture of learning. This posture allows us to take in, to broaden our perspectives, and to see the world clearly. It is from this posture that we may experience the abundance the Psalmist felt as he penned those beautiful words, “my cup runneth over”. When we include the excluded, we reorient ourselves and our world to the way that things ought to be.

So how do we do this? How do we integrate the practice of including the excluded in our lives? My studies and experiences have caused me to make a few changes that I thought I’d share.

  1. Be critical of your inputs. There are many divisive sources out there, from books to blogs to articles and reviews, with some more blatant than others. Be incredibly critical of your inputs, as they have the power to slowly but surely change your mindset.
  2. Regularly learn about/from someone not like you. If you look around and discover that most of your social circle is very much like you, be intentional about changing that. We all need to have people in our close circles that are not like us, that think differently than us, and that see the world from a very different perspective. Make sure you have regular mechanisms that allow you to interact closely with people not like you.
  3. Practice empathy. Empathy is a skill and muscle like every other, and therefore needs to be practiced, honed, trained, and intentionally exercised. Just as you make time to work out, to learn new skills, and to advance your career, make time to practice empathy, to develop it, to learn from others who are masters of it, and to find situations to apply it.
  4. Be balanced. Provide opposing viewpoints. When you make a decision about someone, play out the opposing viewpoint to see how the other side might see things. For example, when you’re interviewing someone and want to hire them, spend more time providing the best reason you shouldn’t hire them than you do on your reason to hire (or vice versa if you’re rejecting a candidate).

My prayer for you boys is that you are characterized as people who include others, who invite others, and who build community instead of tearing it down. I know this is hard - this is something I struggle with often as well. But I believe firmly that not only will we make our world better by including those that are excluded, but we will make ourselves better, and in doing so will enjoy a much richer and fuller life.



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