By Val Karren
“Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy… ” –St. Matthew 5:43
There is in each of us, no matter where we come from, a conditioning that we receive from our homelands. By the time we reach adulthood, this conditioning lies deep in our psyches. It lies as deep as our very earliest memories. To isolate and understand how this conditioning has influenced our preferences and behaviors is a very difficult and uncomfortable exercise. Pin-pointing these ingrained preferences and discerning how they have unconsciously shaped our life choices, can be likened to trying to watch a movie in a fully lit theater: faint faces and bodies on a white screen in the full sun lacking contrasts.
The decision to start a war can always be traced back to the flawed conditioning of at least the aggressor state. The rationale is usually based in an idea that ‘we’ are superior to ‘them.’ or that ‘we’ are more enlightened than ‘they’ are and that ‘our’ race, form of government, or religion is superior to ‘theirs.’ A flawed sense of superiority leads to intolerance, ignorance and fear of our neighbors, who will become self-made enemies if this notion is not exorcized from the national psyche. Unchecked, these prejudices, inherited through conditioning will lead a nation into becoming a closed and fearful society that navigates only by the dim light of nationalism. To begin breaking down deep prejudice towards another group of people, it is necessary to consider members of another race, nation or religion as individuals, diverse within their own ranks, and find what is unique and special about specific men and women.
As a teenager of 1980s, I was conditioned by my national experience to fear the Soviet Union and the Russians. As early as twelve years old I feared my own annihilation by Soviet missiles. When relations between the USA and USSR began to warm, I felt compelled to understand the Soviet system and learn to speak Russian. In the early 1990s I went to live in the (former) Soviet territories and through mutually meaningful interactions with them as individuals, was able to shed my irrational mistrust and fear of two-hundred and fifty-million people.
Even though I had been successful in overriding my national conditioning regarding Russia and Russians, it was not until I spent twelve months living in an eight-floor dormitory in the Netherlands, with students from all over the world, that my prejudices and fears of peoples from other less prominent ‘enemies of the state’ were also able to be neutralized. Proximity has a way of clearing the poisoned air.
In the academic year of 1999-2000 The Maastricht School of Management hosted MBA candidates from over thirty different countries, including one lone soul from the United States of America. The students came from every continent on the globe, creating a rich and diverse mix of races, ethnicities and nationalities. There were students from The Netherlands, United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Moldova, Ukraine and Armenia, but the Europeans didn’t even muster a plurality in the group. The delegation from China was about forty-percent of the class. There were other Asians from Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Nepal, Mongolia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Korea and Japan. After a short year in Maastricht I could take a trip to almost any African nation as well, and visit somebody I had studied with from Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Ghana, Senegal, Gambia, Nigeria, Namibia, Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda. Don’t forget the Americans from Peru, Brazil and Venezuela, Jamaica, Aruba and Curaçao. There were also Palestinians and an Israeli. Even though relations between several of the countries which we represented were not congenial, and even at war with each other during our intense year of study together, I can’t think a better group of friends on graduation day than what we had become. If there is still a chance at world understanding and peace, I think the exposures necessary to catalyze it will start in classrooms and think sessions like those experienced in Maastricht.
Before arriving in Maastricht I felt that I had come a long way in overcoming personal and national prejudices, but even after years of travel and extended stays abroad, I found I was hardly ready for the deep mixing of culture, belief and deeply ingrained traditions that I received during that year. What I found is that I was still carrying the baggage of the last fifty American years which needed to be thrown overboard in order to live in peace and harmony with my next door neighbors, and those that lived a floor above me, and behind me, and across the courtyard out the back doors. How is it that I had the impression that China is a nation of oppressive homogeneity? How is it that I had the impression that Cuba is a dreary place without hope or vision? Who convinced me that all Arabs hate all Americans, and who led me to believe that the Vietnamese are calculating, cruel-minded people? My experiences with these people, who represented America’s self-contrived and perpetuated fears, have convinced me otherwise. But I ask the question again, from where did these misconceptions come? Who taught this to me? For twenty-six years I had subconsciously avoided these cultures out of fear and distrust. This is surely a sad thing, because in these peoples, in these friends, I found much tenderness, friendship, originality and a whole of lot of salsa dancing and joie de vivre.
Many of my classmates were mothers and fathers and had spouses and children who were not able to join them abroad, while I was able to have my wife and first son stay with me in Maastricht. First words, steps and birthdays of many young children were missed by devoted parents who were sacrificing ‘now’ for a better future for their families through the opportunity of an advanced degree. Despite our national and racial differences, the one commonality that ran through all us was the love and devotion to family.
If there was anybody in our class who was the ‘class diplomat’ it was my infant son Matthew. With his help we opened conversations with people from countless countries, including our Dutch hosts. He developed a very strong bond in his own way with a few of the Chinese and African women, and adored a Palestinian lady named Sahar. He would go to her without any fuss when we met her at the school or on the street. As so many of the students were too far from home to call their families regularly and saw them even less, a number of classmates enjoyed coming to spend time at our home, because it was a family home with a Dad, Mom and baby-boy. We made it a point to invite several young mothers and fathers, who had missed their children’s first birthdays, to join us to help celebrate Matthew’s first birthday in March, as a well intended yet insufficient substitute.
Our mutual concern and love for our children and family will always break down the barriers of pride. On a late Saturday night in March a classmate from Vietnam knocked on our door. He was visibly upset and needed our assistance. His wife and eighteen month old son had just arrived in Maastricht for a three month visit and his son had promptly caught cold and was getting feverish. There was nothing artificial in the distress of this young father, just as with me when Matthew was frighteningly ill earlier that winter. We shared the medication and we had received when Matthew had come down with a terrible cough and virus after his immunizations, and made a bond as young parents in the same boat.
Our next-door neighbors were Libyans with two small children, who were as affectionate with their small ones as we were with ours. The language barrier kept us at arms length, but when the children were in question, or at risk, concern across cultures was the same for each others’ children. We spoke them no harm, nor they us and we lived next to each other for several months while exchanging greetings and smiles and kind deeds.
Even though Matthew had his fans, the delegation of ladies from Cuba, who lived just a few doors down, adored him more than the rest combined. One warm afternoon as we were going for a bike ride, the Cubans, who were hosting (yet another) Salsa dance party on the lawn, saw the defenceless child strapped in his bike seat and mobbed us to pinch his cheeks, kiss and tickle him until he cried.
Late one morning, a close friend from Shenzhen knocked on our door in tears and asked to come in. She had just heard from her mother that her grandparents had died a day earlier. Due to the heartbreak of losing his wife of sixty years, Yan’s grandfather had passed away only hours of his wife of sixty years, unable to live without her. Yan wanted to go home to China, but knew she wouldn’t be able to so late in the academic calendar. Instead she sat with us for the afternoon, crying out her grief and shock while she told us stories about her grandparents. I have a photo of her with puffy, red eyes feeding Matthew a bottle on the couch after the sunshine had come out again later that afternoon.
After I got to know Yan and the many different personalities within the Chinese delegation, some conservative, some rebellious, some shy, others boisterous, I could only repent of my ignorance that prompted me to treat them as a faceless, homogenous block. In each of them that I worked with, I found kind, compassionate friends that I could rely on for support and help when I needed it to get through tough course work. Each with their own perspectives, skills and experience added unique valuable elements to our project groups. I am so grateful I had the opportunity to live and work in such close quarters with so many different people from so many different countries in order to learn just how wrong I had been about so many different people. Through proximity to individuals, I was to replace limiting prejudices towards groups of people, and I learned to appreciate the diverse mosaic that our planet truly is.
With the modern world so intricately woven together at just the base level of economic inter-dependance, as suppliers and customers, manufacturers and consumers, my mind swims at the contrived need of politicians and dictators alike to build weapons of war, and the rationale they use to convince themselves that any modern war is winnable. When I hear the sabres of war rattling in different corners of the world I always pause to reflect on the possible hidden agendas of those in power who are using the deep seated national or ethnic prejudices of one group against another. When I consider the families of the friends that I made in just one year in Maastricht, that make up the foreign nations against whom my home country is planning future wars, I shake my head in disbelief that Generals and Admirals can so easily plan to volunteer my sons to become the killers of my friends and their sons.
It is time for those whose children will fill the ranks of any future armies to reach out a hand of friendship and peace to those from the places that our governments want us to hate and fear. When we share a meal, a conversation and a kind word or deed with those across a forbidden border, we break the spell of demagoguery and fear mongering that is growing again in our shrinking world, and begin to free ourselves from our personal prisons of ignorance and prejudice that hold us back from living a life filled with love for the beautiful spectrum of people that God designed on our beautiful planet.
“…but I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you…”