I’m an Ice Cube fan.
Thanks to his music, something that has stuck with me for many years is the idea to “check myself.” This means that I watch my actions and my words in order to prevent myself from getting hurt… or hurting someone else. Essentially it equates to self-awareness and accountability, which are two key ingredients required for us to better ourselves. What I mean by “better ourselves” is this: you become a better version of you — kinder, gentler, more patient, forgiving, understanding, loving, compassionate, helpful, honest. It’s that mindful, personal development work that helps us grow into the person we want to be.
And then, like ripples in a pond — or an onion sharing its pungent odor with the rest of the food in the fridge — our self-improvement helps to better those around us: our friends, our family, our community… our fellow humans. They want to keep up. It’s a natural side effect.
We all have moments that can serve as a “check yourself” opportunity.
These moments — the ones where we just react without actually thinking — happen many times a day, and come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are so big they’re hard to miss, and generally elicit feelings that we can’t ignore such as annoyance, hurt, fear, disgust, and anger.
You may respond negatively to things being done differently from what we’ve come to believe or accept as the norm, whether that’s a boy wanting to wear dresses, skirts, and nail polish; a girl wanting to play football; a dad wanting to stay home and raise his children while his spouse goes to work; or a woman wanting to hold (and competing for) the highest office in the land.
Maybe you’re walking down the street at night, and you modify your posture or the speed that you’re walking because you’ve encountered a male of a different race, and you immediately question your safety.
Or perhaps you go out to lunch with your coworkers and see a party of four at the opposite end of the room. A couple of them are overweight. The group is sharing and enjoying a platter of fried mozzarella sticks, breadsticks, fried zucchini, and deep-fried risotto balls of deliciousness dipped in marinara and alfredo sauces. You know — the type of platter that makes every cardiologist in the U.S. see dollar signs à la Scrooge McDuck. All the while, you’re thinking “Wow, they really shouldn’t be eating that, look at how overweight they are, they must not care about their health.”
These bigger moments — and your reactions to them — have ramifications.
Ramifications that we may or may not see. Ramifications that can have a big impact. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday soon and… well, certainly somewhere down the line.
Stop. Check yourself.
Think about your response to the group of overweight people or the man on the street. What are you assuming about them that makes you respond in such a way? And where is this assumption coming from? What are the reasons for the assumptions you’re making? Can you accept the differences rather than demonizing them? Can you see things from a different perspective? Do you treat people differently (whether overtly or subtly) because they are different from you?
Many moons ago, when I first started working in social services, part of my job was to run a Holiday Gift-Giving Program. Low income families were nominated by social workers to receive gifts from families or individuals who wanted to help a family in need around the holiday season. One of the moms who was nominated had four children and a list of practical things she wanted her children to receive — underwear, socks, winter coats, that sort of thing. My coworker and I met up with the mom to deliver the items. On the drive back to the office my coworker said, “I bet if Mom didn’t spend so much money on doing her nails, she’d have more money to provide her children with basic necessities such as underwear.” I silently and unthinkingly nodded in agreement.
OUCH. After nearly 18 years, this still sticks with me. I am complicit in the judgment of this mom based on an unfounded assumption. How do we know that mom spent money on her nails? Maybe she had a relative learning to do them and asked her to be a guinea pig. Maybe someone gave her a gift certificate to have them done. Maybe, after a long week, month, or year of being the sole provider and caregiver for her children — combined with a special sale at the local nail salon — Mom decided that she needed an incentive or reward so that that she could keep on going, keep on giving, keep on doing. We just didn’t know.
Then there are the smaller moments.
Like whether or not you sign up your son for ballet class (and therefore deny the world or gift it with the next Mikhail Baryshnikov), or your daughter for mathletes (future astronaut or brain surgeon, maybe?). These subtler occasions can go virtually unnoticed, and can take a long time and ongoing mindful practice to detect… and even then you won’t always pick up on them. But their ramifications can be just as great as the big ones.
Recently, my daughter’s school sent us a booklet of afterschool activities she could participate in.
It’s like a toy catalog, but for parents. We get to choose from a wide array of activities to enroll our kiddos into, with the hopes that the experience will help develop their innate talents… and maybe turn them into superstars so they can fund our retirement (just kidding, I’m pretty sure I have a 401K or something…)
Keeping my daughter’s proclivities in mind, I leaf through the booklet.
As I go, I circle the activities that seem like good contenders and cross out the ones I think are duds. Reading and book appreciation: circle. Recycled material art: circle. Robotics: cross out. Storytelling: circle… And then my internal record scratches Hold up. It’s a “check yourself” moment.
My kiddo is barely five.
Does she love art, books, and storytelling? Absolutely. But because of her age I don’t yet know with perfect certainty what else she likes or dislikes. (Except nose-picking — she’s told me in no uncertain terms that she loves picking her nose and it “feels really good.”) And I realize that, without a second thought, I had made the assumption that robotics was something she wouldn’t be interested in. Because she’s never shown a proclivity for it, I reassure myself.
But that’s not entirely true.
She’s actually a huge fan of the robots on Sesame Street. But even if she had never been exposed to robots at all, how in the world do I know if she will or won’t like this class? Where am I getting the idea that she might not be interested in robotics? Well….. I mean…. Aw, crap. It’s that pesky ingrained stereotype that girls don’t like STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects. But I was able to check myself. And now guess who is signed up for storytelling, recycled art, and robotics? My kid.
Why should you “check yourself”?
Checking yourself allows you to examine what sneaky little assumptions you have about others without even realizing it. Stereotypes are generally founded on miscomprehension of other people and ideas, or they have been imposed on us through societal norms from the cultures we grow up in. But just because some people believe things should be or are a certain way, doesn’t make it so.
When you consciously take a look at these stereotypes, you take away their power.
When you accept others’ differences, you redefine your relationship to those who are different from you.
When you “check yourself,” you better yourself and, in effect, you make the whole world a little better, too.
Originally published at medium.com