Not too long ago, I saw an interview with the filmmaker Lee Daniels, the director of such films as Monster’s Ball, Precious, and The Butler, along with the TV shows Empire and Star.
Daniels was talking about growing up in Philadelphia, where his father was a cop in the Philadelphia police department. When Daniels was a teenager, his father was killed in the line of duty, and Daniels recounted during the interview how the officers at his father’s funeral were openly crying at his father’s gravesite. His father was African-American, and for the grieving white cops at the funeral, there was no race differential between them and Daniels’ father – they were brothers-in-arms.
At that point in time, as Daniels further said in the interview, Philadelphia’s mayor was Frank Rizzo, a former police commissioner who had developed a reputation as being tough on crime. Rizzo’s relationship with Philadelphia’s black community was volatile, and many in and out of that community considered him a racist.
Yet here were Philadelphia police officers, in a city torn apart by racial strife, and a city experiencing racial baiting from a mayor with racist tendencies, at the funeral of one of their own, openly weeping and mourning their loss. There were no prejudices that day; everyone was united in their grief.
In a different situation, if the slain black officer was not a cop, the odds of white cops attending his funeral and grieving his death would have been nonexistent. The white officers would not have known this dead man, nor ever taken the time to get to know him.
Fear and the Brain
I wrote a prior article about Healing the Divide in America that looked at the partisan divide in the U.S. from the outside in. In that article I looked at the external forces that are tearing this country apart and causing people to become divided and separated from one another.
There is also a great divide in America that stems from the inside out. This is the internal force that is dividing and separating us.
The inside out divide that exists in America is rooted in how we “otherize” those who are different than ourselves. Those who look, act, speak and seem different than us are looked at with suspicion – unless we know them, as the white cops knew the slain black cop.
At the same time that we otherize those who are different than us, we also otherize ourselves.
This otherizing is predicated in fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of uncertainty. Fear of our own shadow. Fear of the “other.” Fear of our own unexpressed emotions. And a million other fears.
Fear is a dark energy of infinite shape and size that can consume you by feeding you with lies and distortions. Fear is both a learned and conditioned trait, and also a primal trait.
Fear drives us to go against our own best interests and stay locked in a corner, afraid to venture beyond the familiar. It causes us to stay with our tribe, and stay with the tried and true, even when the tried and true leaves us miserable, unfulfilled, unsatisfied, unhealthy, angry, resentful, frustrated, and countless other negative emotions and negative life situations.
Fear is rooted in the primal, reptilian brain, the part of our anatomy that is tasked with overseeing our survival. The reptilian brain exists in all living creatures and is responsible for species-typical instinctual behaviors involved in aggression, dominance, territoriality, and ritual displays.
The reptilian brain is one of three main segments of the brain. The reptilian brain is the lowest segment, located in the brainstem and cerebellum. The next part of our brain structure is the limbic system. The limbic system is responsible for our emotional life, and the emotions that emanate from the limbic system are the familiar emotions. Yet if we let the limbic system rule our life, we then become a slave to our emotions.
The last segment of the brain is the neocortex, and it is the neocortex that separates humans from other mammals. The neocortex first assumed importance in primates and has culminated in the human brain, with its two large cerebral hemispheres that play such a dominant role. These hemispheres have been responsible for the development of human language, abstract thought, imagination, and consciousness. The neocortex is flexible and has almost infinite learning abilities and has enabled human cultures to develop and thrive.
The neocortex allows a person to develop their thinking and cognitive capabilities and evolve to greater potentials. It helps us go beyond the limited primal behavior patterns of the reptilian brain, and the emotional roller coaster of the limbic system, to become more evolved human beings, capable of moving past survival instincts and emotion-based behaviors.
There would be no da Vinci, Beethoven, Picasso, Nelson Mandela, Sigmund Freud, Nikola Tesla, Steve Jobs, or any other brilliant and creative person who has enriched our lives, without the neocortex.
This is our human potential, to live at our highest capabilities, using the power of the neocortex. With the application of the neocortex, we are not a slave to our emotions, nor a slave to our primal, instinctive survival drives.
Obviously, we need our emotions, as it’s what helps us feel, love, and empathize. We also need the higher-level cognitive capacities that the neocortex supplies us with. It is when we integrate the two in a holistic way that the mind and heart can be unified, and the thinking and feeling body can be more connected. When this takes place, we stop being overwhelmed by our emotional and primal drives.
The Internal Disconnect
If the heart and mind are not integrated, a separation between the two will exist. This separation is caused by feeling overwhelmed by the emotional and primal drives. This sense of being overwhelmed leads to an internal disconnect in which we otherize not only ourselves but others.
Internal disconnects can occur in any number of ways. They can be influenced by others, or they can be self-induced. As I pointed out in my prior article, Healing the Divide in America, outside influences are many: When we fall under the sway of demagogues, we become disconnected to ourselves. When we fall under the sway of those who encourage us to fear the other, we become disconnected to ourselves. When we fall under the sway of those who speak poisonous words, we become disconnected to ourselves. And when we fall under the sway of those who continually lie, and we allow ourselves to believe those lies, we become disconnected to ourselves.
Disconnects that are self-induced are also many and include: When we allow ourselves to fall under the sway of our own anger, we become disconnected to ourselves. When we allow ourselves to fall under the sway of our own fears, we become disconnected to ourselves. When we allow ourselves to fall under the sway of our resentments, we become disconnected to ourselves. When we allow ourselves to fall under the sway of our own greed, we become disconnected to ourselves. And when we allow ourselves to fall under the sway of our own narcissism, we become disconnected to ourselves.
When all is said and done, we are more similar than different. We all have the same desire for health, happiness, fulfillment, security, comfort and love – we all share a common humanity. Yet when we are overcome by the disconnect, we become separate from both ourselves and others, and the divide that exists between us just grows larger.
Stepping Outside the Comfort Zone
We have to take a chance and step out of our own comfort zone in order to feel more integrated within ourselves. This helps you get past the distorted story you have created about yourself. In turn, this then allows you to take the next step and reach out to those who are different than yourself – the people who get otherized.
In order to reach out to the “others,” we need to take a risk and get beyond our preconceptions of who this “other” is. This preconception is just a story that you have created in your mind.
It was easy for the white cops to grieve for a black cop, as the white cops of Philadelphia did for the father of Lee Daniels, because he was one of them and there was no separation. You see how easy it can be?
How easy is it for you to talk to someone different? What preconceptions do you have of those who are different?
How easy is it for you to fall under the sway of someone else’s negative perceptions? How easy is it for you to fall under the sway of your own negative emotions?
Self-Awareness and Healing the Divide
Increased self-awareness is a powerful tool for healing the divide in ourselves. When we shine a light on our own shadow, when we bring luminosity to our own blind spots, we start using our awareness to heal the divide in ourselves.
When we shut ourselves down and close the door to self-awareness, then the darkness of the reptilian brain and the emotional roller coaster of the limbic system become the prevailing forces.
And when we attempt to understand the drives, motives, fears and impulses of those who are different than ourselves, we can put ourselves in their shoes and act from a more compassionate, aware and evolved place.
Healing the divide in ourselves is not a hard thing. It just takes increased self-awareness, which allows for empathy, understanding, compassion and self-love. And when this occurs, we become not only more connected to others, but even more importantly, more connected to ourselves.
And this is how we change and heal not only ourselves but the world.
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