Reflection on a Life Lived Amidst Change

My Alma Mater has asked me to come back and give a keynote address to the Arkansas Model United Nations. I was one of a group of students who began the AMUN forty -eight years ago. I am flattered that they think I would have something to offer in terms of perspective. Looking back over the last forty -eight years, how would I say that my life was impacted by participating in an event such as the AMUN? What could I say to this year’s participants about how this experience might contribute to their lives going forward?

I think it is important to take the time to reflect on where you have been and what you learned there. As I think about what to say about participating in this event in college, I also have a chance to think about the paths that my life has taken and the nature of the journey that I have traveled. As I do that, it reminds me of the process that we do in therapy when we meet with the clients and ask them to find a safe space to stand and examine their lives. With clients, I need to be a clinical and supportive observer. When talking about myself, I do not have that restriction.

Once I wrote the speech for the AMUN however, I recognized that much of what I have to say is extremely similar to what I encourage my clients to recognize. I challenge them to look at their lives as a whole, rather than focus on disparate parts or singular events, be those awesome or traumatic. I think it is critical that we put our memories and feelings up against a wall of perspective. I believe that you cannot examine a single thread of the tapestry, but must look at the whole that includes the anchoring knots that will stabilize the tapestry giving it shape and dimension. It is by using each of those individual threads and anchoring knots that we weave patterns that flesh out the fabric of our lives.

What are the anchoring knots that being a part of the Arkansas Model United Nations became for me? Are there any? How do they hold the fabric of my life and allow or encourage the creation of the pattern that I have lived in the intervening forty -eight years?

The words that came to me when I began to think about this were: ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and smorgasbord. When I went to college, I chose to study the social sciences; Anthropology, Sociology and Psychology, as well as History and current events. One of the first concepts that I learned was that all of us are innately and instinctively ethnocentric. We learn things growing up as part of a cultural environment that we never question, examine or think about. An example is the way that we utilize a fork and knife in our culture. If you are able to travel around the world and discover that not everyone eats with a knife and fork in the same manner that you learned growing up, you may be surprised. Depending on the strength of your ethnocentrism, you may be uncomfortable and judgmental about the differences. Your unconscious will “know” that when God invented the fork, he meant for us to eat with it the way we learned to eat with it. These same cultural mores will haunt you with regard to how you interact and participate when among others. For example: When you meet strangers on the street, do you look at them, smile and greet them? Or, do you look the other way and then peek at them out of the corner of your eye to see if they are dangerous? Those patterns are ethnocentric.

Another key term that I learned is xenophobia. Phobia means the fear of and xeno refers to strangers. Many of us are raised to be afraid of those that are different. It doesn’t matter how they are different, we immediately and instinctively fear them. We are socially resistant to change. Change is hard in part because of this instinctive fear. In the world, there is clearly an “us” and “not us.” And, the “not us” are different, weird, fearsome and wrong. We must guard against them and work to maintain our own inculcated values and behaviors. We will resist “different,” “new,” and “other.” Emotionally we are driven to resist change because of the xenophobia and the ethnocentrism.

Getting an education exposes us to other ways of thinking, knowing and being. If we are open to the educative process we can learn how others dress, work, interact and believe. We can measure those things against multiple interpretive matrices. Does the way they work make them happy? Empirically, are their ways more efficient? Do their cultural goals seem to work better for them? Could we learn from them anything about how we organize our families, our businesses, our homes, our lives? What can we offer for their consideration? Are they open to accepting new ways of thinking and behaving? Are we arrogant for thinking they should be like us? Are they afraid of us? Are they xenophobic? Are they instinctively aware of the truth of their “ways” and the wrongness of ours? How do they treat women? Gays? Foreigners? What is their religion like? How does it impact their choices and daily lives? Could we talk to them about our beliefs and religion? Would we have an ethical obligation in return to listen to their myths and stories, and could we evaluate whether those might be more “true” or “better?”

Finally, the word I really want to talk about, especially in terms of going to college, but also in terms of living life as the journey unfolds, is smorgasbord. I strongly believe that life is a smorgasbord, a table full of options and choices. We should examine those options and try many of them. We do not have to eat all that we take off the table, we can taste it and then pass on it, but we would benefit from being open to new experiences and new paths.

My younger son recently went off to college as a freshman. One of the messages that I have given him about being in college is that it is the safest and most free time he will ever have to explore the smorgasbord of life. He is unencumbered with obligations to others. He is free to explore and invent himself as the adult he will become. I want him to get involved in a little of everything that University life has to offer. He hates the idea of giving a speech, I want him to take a course in public speaking. He wants to be an engineer and study math and science. I want him to take a drama course, a poetry course, or a dance class. I want him to join political clubs and go to different churches and see what he thinks. I want him to hang out with new and different people. I want him to open his eyes, his heart, and his life to the possibility of change. Change is scary, but exciting and potentially life enhancing. I tell him “Go for it!” Do not be afraid to fail, do not be afraid to taste a new flavor or learn to think a different way. You will always be you and we will always love you, but exploring new things gives you tools to put in your pocket for later use. I want you to dream dreams and taste flavors and seek new realms of adventure. Weave the fabric of your life from exciting and beautiful new threads. Do not just live in a grey world bounded by your ethnocentrism and your xenophobia. Travel, smell, taste, hear, see, sing, dance and play. If you begin your journey this way, you will more likely live your life this way.

These are the things I want to say to the students at the AMUN. I also want to talk about some of the other lessons they can learn by participating in these types of events. They can learn to negotiate, to understand and manipulate the levers of organizational power. They come to know that all politics are local, and that their ability to relate to others, to radiate an aura of competence and knowledge and confidence will not only help them be safe, but it will help them grow in the ranks of their professions no matter what those are.

Education is about learning, about the defeat of ignorance by the acquisition of skills and information. Education is a training ground for acquiring skills and abilities and information with which to frame your world- view, and through which you can determine the direction of your journey of life. Take the ride, life is about the journey, not about the destination. It is not about being “safe”, one can never be truly safe in an uncertain world. Fear can be a positive tool for growth just as much as adventure can cause you to encounter new stimuli, and openness can help you digest whatever life has to offer. You cannot get through this life without pain and loss, but your journey will be so much more rewarding and fulfilling if you will learn to throw the dice and take a chance that you may fail in order to break the mold of limited thinking and small lives defined by ethnocentrism and xenophobia. Eat at the smorsgasbord! Enjoy.

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