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Honest Look Reveals There Are No 'Others'

By Donna Britt
Friday, December 31, 2004; Page B01

It's hard enough finding compassion for certain people. But during a conversation about diets, my friend Denise actually asked me:

"Have you ever looked into the eyes of a cow?"

I hadn't. But Denise has the kind of feather-soft heart that, I learned, made her stop her car during a country drive, stroll up to a wary Holstein and meet its gaze.

She never ate meat again. Vegetarianism was her carefully considered response to a heartfelt experience.

Every day, we do the opposite. We think hundreds of thoughts -- and perform hundreds of corresponding actions -- while barely examining them.

Driving from one familiar location to another, we focus on a cell phone conversation, yesterday's meeting, everything but the road. We arrive with no memory of the trip. Or we multitask: ironing a shirt while nodding to a song while conversing with a friend as we keep an ear cocked for the kids.

We're on automatic, our behavior as reflexive as an eyeblink.

Is that why we so reflexively dismiss "the other" -- anyone who isn't us, or like us? Our talent for ignoring, belittling or attacking such people is so common and instinctive that our deepest horrors stem from it:

War. Bigotry. Poverty.

Yet most of us would admit we didn't choose the package we arrived in. Our genders, skin colors, sexual orientations, nationalities and family incomes were assigned to us without our input. Stuff we could choose -- our religions, politics, educations -- often are inherited, too.

Each of us carries considerable unasked-for baggage. So you have to wonder:

Why do we hold other people's unrequested stuff against them?

The question is preschool-simple. Yet we rarely consider why, to some extent, we all hold reflexive, intolerant opinions of fellow humans based on characteristics they never chose -- and which might have been ours had Providence deemed differently.

Each of us hates being boxed and labeled. Yet our approval and understanding of others -- and especially the other -- is often meted out on a sliding scale based on what we are.


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