About Rowena

Hello, my name is Ro, and I believe that it is possible for you to turn your ordinary life into an extraordinary life - to find true happiness, while remaining, selfless, mindful and compassionate towards other living beings. Here at my blog, I interview and post articles by musicians, writers, world travelers, humanitarians and other amazing individuals who are doing just that. I also share with you various anecdotes about my own totally awesome existence as a musician, composer, journalist, environmentalist, and compassionati. My hope is to connect with you, enlighten you, inspire you and lead you down the path to true happiness. Compassion is always in fashion and it starts with you loving that most important of people, yourself.

December 19, 2010

The Christmas Card

Photo by Hasina of Fabulissime
I visited the Museum of Tolerance here in Los Angeles a few weeks ago.   Upon exiting the exhibit on the holocaust there were two doors - one reading prejudiced and one reading not-prejudiced.   You had a choice of which door to use when exiting the exhibit.  I headed straight for not-prejudiced only to find that door would not open.   Another guest attempted the door as well, and then a third.   We all laughed uncomfortably, looking rather sheepishly at each other before exiting through the door entitled prejudiced.  Who me?  Ro?  Prejudiced?

Human beings have an instinctive negative bias towards people who are different from them.  100,000 years of existence has not changed the way that our brains process information to first classify another human being, as us or them, friend or foe, all courtesy of our limbic system - one of the more primitive parts of our brain.  Within the limbic system is a small jelly bean shaped thing known as the amygdala, which senses potential threats to our welfare, evoking negative emotions such as fear, anger, disgust, hatred. In over 100,000 years of human development that part of our brains has not adapted to a world where things have changed dramatically.  Although it is a rarity for most of us to be threatened by nonhuman predators, this response is still necessary in life threatening situations.   Unfortunately, we still have that initial fight or flight reaction to people who are different than us, whether it be race, religion, social status, gender, sexual orientation, or education, that asks is this person a we or a them?  The amygdala - the primary biological culprit responsible for prejudice and hated, forces us all to utilize the same, shameful door.

Enter the cerebral cortex - the most recent development in human brain evolution.  The thinking part of our brain that we use to analyze a situation.   This is part of our brain from which our distortions and stereotypes of them arise - through lifelong training, conditioning and deeply ingrained beliefs.  Combining these false beliefs with the negative emotions arising from the amygdala results in disaster. 

What do we do?   We challenge the beliefs that our prejudices are based upon - beliefs that we learned from our own culture, through our upbringing and so on.  We retrain our brains to understand that all people are the same from a biological level, to see all of us as human beings first.  We practice patience and tolerance, have empathy, develop compassion.   Strategically, through personal contact and education we can change our perceptions.  Fundamentally we are all equal.  The fundamental principles of modern civilization, notably my own country . . . the United States of America and its underlying justice system, say that this is so in the eyes of the law.   Yet it has only been two decades since the civil rights movement and we have painfully far to go we human beings. 

What does this have to do with a Christmas Card?   Personally, I haven't sent them out for twenty-seven years, and on gifts I generally simply include a small tag with from and to.  I receive very few Christmas Cards in the mail, and when I do simply look at them, think how nice that such and such thought of me and then throw the card away once the holidays are over.

Yesterday I purchased a Christmas card for some acquaintances of mine - those acquaintances being a homeless couple that I sometimes stop to talk to when I am going in and out of the grocery store.  They explained to me that they had lot their home to foreclosure.  I have seen them many times this past year.  They are generally there during cold and rainy weather . . . and were there yesterday, taking shelter from the icy rain as best they could.   They often wave and say hello to the people passing by  -  and people either choose to wave back identifying them as human and as we, or ignore them as inferior, embarrassing, suspect, dangerous, them.  Yet the couple maintains their cheery facade.  The woman in particular always say hello to me and likes to compliment me on my long black hair, or asks where my husband is, if he is not with me that day. 

So there my fellow human beings sat - one week before Christmas, on a blanket in front of the supermarket attempting to stay warm and dry as best they could.   They waved at me and asked me how I was as I walked into the store and I thought about it as I loaded my basket with fresh fruits, vegetables, sundry items, and chose an extra nice bottle of wine to give to a business associate.   I also had fire logs for our fireplace and hot apple cider to enjoy as we decorated our tree.  Cheese and crackers, pet supplies, cereal, coffee and the like.   What did they have besides each other and faith and hope that things will get better?

I decided I would get some cash back at checkout to give to them - a little more than the buck or two I would normally give to people in similar circumstances.   This seemed impersonal though, albeit well intended and it troubled me.  So I decided to put the money into a Christmas card - the first Christmas card I have bought for anyone in nearly 27 years.  Not knowing their names - funny I never asked them that - and they never asked me mine.   I put on the envelope Faith and Hope.  I signed the card Love and Light, Rowena.   It was a pretty card, white with silver writing, with a nice saying.   I handed the envelope to the woman on the way to my truck.  She said what's this?  A Christmas Card!   I can't remember the last time that someone gave me one!  She burst into tears, wiping and mopping at her face while her husband smiled.  This prompted me to hug them both - such nice, warm hugs.   Two human beings who just like me simply want to be happy and not to suffer.   Fundamentally and biologically the same as all humans.  Appreciative of the fact that a mere acquaintance had given them a Christmas Card emphasizing my belief that we are we, not me and them.

Love and Light,

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