Step out of comfort zone to learn about others

Step out of comfort zone to learn about others

Fresno Bee, February 11, 2012

I’m writing this column from Tel Aviv, Israel.  I’m on sabbatical, working on a book on justice, ethics, and religion.  A day after arriving, a friend drove me to Ajami, an Arab suburb south of town.  He said that the falafel there was delicious.  As the muezzin sang the call to prayer from a mosque near the old port of Jaffa, he explained that middle class Jews from Tel Aviv rarely set foot in such neighborhoods.

As we prowled dark, dusty streets looking for parking, I realized that there were no more signs in English.  My mind was spinning with jet lag and cultural dislocation.  The locals were oblivious to the foreigner munching falafel.  Kids played tag in the traffic.  Beautiful women walked by in headscarves and high-heeled shoes.  Families walked by with babies in strollers.  We ate in peace.

You don’t have to go to the Middle East to feel uncomfortable in certain neighborhoods.  There are parts of Fresno where middle class Fresnans never go.  We stick to familiar places and operate according to unconscious prejudices.  And so we rarely see the problems of those living just across town.  But it is important to cross the boundaries we impose upon ourselves every now and then.

Jane Addams described one of her first memories as a trip across town.  When she was six, her father took her to some nearby slums.  Young Jane asked her father, “why people lived in such horrid little houses so close together.”  From that original, naïve insight that some people live rough lives, Addams went on to found Hull-House in Chicago and eventually to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

One of Addams’ important insights, derived with her work with immigrant families in Chicago, is that cosmopolitan cities help people overcome prejudice.  She thought that living and working in proximity with diverse others teaches us to get along and reminds us all people deserve equal respect.

I was reminded of the importance of cross cultural interaction even before arriving in Israel.  We were stuck for most of a day in Istanbul, due to a snowstorm.  Istanbul is the crossroads of the world.  The airport was full of stranded travelers: Chinese men in business suits, Muslim women in black burkas, Indian families, and African students.

The counter for rebooking cancelled flights was a mess.  There was no line—just a mass of people pushing toward the counter, complaining in various languages.  A German who had been stranded for a couple of days, pushed back against the masses, trying to establish order in the line.  A flushed American got into a shouting match with a clerk about a misplaced passport.  A tall dark man in a three-piece suit elbowed his way to the front.  He pounded on the counter and loudly demanded to know who was in charge and what was going on.

Those of us who had been waiting smiled and laughed: no one was in charge and nobody knew what was going on.  Despite this, most everyone waited patiently and things eventually worked themselves out. Hope for the future is to be found in the patient forbearance of the vast majority, who just want to go about their business and get on with their lives.

This is true despite vast cultural differences.  It is reassuring how easily people from different parts of the world get along.  But unless you leave your own neighborhood, you don’t notice this.  Segregation, poverty, and prejudice remain problems.  This is true at home and abroad.

Future progress will depend on taking these problems seriously, stepping outside our usual comfort zones, and truly seeing the challenges confronting people around the world and across the city.  Jane Addams once said, “the highest moralists have taught that without the advance and improvement of the whole, no man can hope for any lasting improvement in his own moral or material individual condition.”

It is difficult to put yourself into the shoes of someone else.  It takes effort to venture across town.  Courage is needed to confront your own fears and prejudices.  But there is no excuse for ignoring the problems of our fellow human beings.  And if you take an unfamiliar path to the other side of town, you just might discover that the falafel there really does taste delicious.