A friend of mine recently shared that, during a holiday dinner, his cousin began to embark on a diatribe of political talking points. My friend countered by remarking that he didn’t think the terms “liberal” and “conservative” meant anything anymore. Was “free trade” liberal or conservative? Were “tariffs” liberal or conservative? Was “transparency” liberal or conservative? His cousin, who had been ready to come back with more “talking points,” actually paused and sincerely reflected. The questions served to disrupt the rival role playing, so instead of being a “liberal” and a “conservative,” they were once again cousins who were able to have a conversation about the state of the world.
I believe life is a game of semantics. We each have a set of terminology, vocabulary that surrounds our beliefs and conception of ourselves. If someone is “speaking our language,” then we are more apt to listen to them. If what is said appears outside of our circle, we are hardwired to think of the speaker as an outsider as well. Maybe the key to being able to relate to one another during times of seeming division, or that seem divisive, is to be willing to expand our vocabulary and/or question our labels?
When we were growing up, there was an evening when my mother was exhausted. She was not trying to abdicate responsibility but, rather desiring consideration when she said, “What if instead of seeing me as a mom, you saw me as a person?” This question was met with a loving kick from my father under the table. Dad suggested to her later that she had to continue playing that role for a while. What this points to, for me, is that we are more than our labels and obligations.
As Ram Dass once said, we often feel, “I’m really somebody going through something.” Accordingly, how we identify can keep us invested in the drama of our existence.
It is fitting that Ram Dass, spiritual teacher and author of Be Here Now, has taken leave of his body just as his movie, “Becoming Nobody,” is about to become available on DVD. He recently talked of being taken to a hospital where nobody knew who he was. He said it was bliss. He was not restricted by his identity and the role he “had to continue playing for a while.” We each can become so invested in defining everything that we remove all spaciousness and wonder from the life we embody.
Since Ram Dass was one of the first spiritual rock stars that influenced my journey, I will lean on a few of his quotes here.
“The problem is you’re afraid to acknowledge your own beauty. You’re too busy holding onto your unworthiness. You’d rather be a schmuck sitting before some great man, that fits in more with who you think you are. Well, enough already. I sit before you because I see your beauty, even if you don’t.” – Ram Dass
We are vaster than we allow ourselves to understand. I am not talking about an over-aggrandized ego either. Narcissism is a chronic insecurity that clings to the role we are playing and insists that, not only is it the star of the show, but it is the only role that matters. Once we see that all the people in our lives are, in fact, universes within themselves, we can start to expand and loosen our intense grip on our perceptions.
As the lyricist Fred Ebb once said, “What good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play. Life is a cabaret, old chum. Come to the cabaret.”
What if, instead of adhering to our labels, we did our best to uphold the values we hold dear? Instead of digging our heels into whatever our particular stance is in this moment, what would happen if we were willing to splash around, without our set parameters, to see roles as masks in a toy chest?
Walking through the gate of a new year, we have the opportunity to appreciate the beauty in others, even when its masked. We can disrupt our role playing and, as the poet Robert Burns suggested, “take a cup of kindness yet,” not only for auld lang syne, the ‘old long since’ or times gone by, but for the now that was then and will be.
Happy New Year!