A few things have profoundly affected me of late. Even as I write these words, I’m unsure as to whether these things even fit together but it feels like they do, so I’m going to try to articulate it.
First, I watched the tremendous film ‘Selma’, which provides an insight into how African Americans were treated in the decades of old. I’m so sorry that racial prejudice existed then and still exists today. I’m so sorry that hate often prevails over love. And I’m so sorry that human beings are willing to hurt each other with such ease. I guess the reason why any prejudice affects me is because I know that we are all the same. Regardless of whether we are black, white or purple with yellow spots, as human beings we will be affected by disease, we will make mistakes, we will cry tears of joy when we see our children achieve, we will strive for fulfilment, we will eat, we will drink, we will feel anger and knowing the statistics like I do, we will suffer psychologically. In a world so eager to divide people according to colour, or class, or religion, or sexual orientation, I know that we are all ‘just human’.
So that was my starting point. As I looked around I found myself connecting with people I didn’t even speak to because of our common humanity. But some humans, as defined by their actions, are greater than others, right? Martin Luther King is a greater human than your average Joe Blogs, right? I’m not so sure. I started thinking about the people in my life. My granddad fought in the 2nd world war. He is a great human. My parents have sacrificed everything for the welfare of my brother and myself. They are great humans. My wife, in addition to many other things, is the most wonderful mother to my 10-week-old baby. She is a great human. I could go on. It turned out that everyone I knew was great in some way, even if they didn’t know it themselves. And as you read this I bet you could list a number of people with greatness about them. All of a sudden, rather than the term ‘just a human’ having the feel of something unremarkable, in fact, ‘just a human’ could be translated into ‘a being of greatness’. The irony here being that the nature of the word ‘greatness’ implies something out of the ordinary or rare, but I happen to see it in a lot of people who are ‘just human’.
So what about me, as ‘just a human’, am I great? Much to my embarrassment, I probably would have answered ‘yes’ to that question my whole life. Why? Because surely anybody who has the grandiose ambition to change the world comes with an in-built narcissism? I must think that there is greatness in me to even strive for such things, and I’ve beat myself up for such arrogance for a long time. As the poem goes “who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” But recently something changed for me when mulling over the aforementioned experiences and when reading this blog, written by a friend. Whereas a while back I might have beat myself up for my delusions of grandeur, now I’m beginning to see that being great does not make me special, it makes me ‘just a human’, such that being great is now perfectly acceptable. As I walk down the street these days, I look at other people and ask the question ‘I wonder in what way they are great too?’
In Berlin, at the World Conference for the Association of Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS), there is an event on the last evening called ‘The Follies’, which involves attendees at the conference getting up on stage and doing something entertaining (there is me to the right attempting to do something entertaining!). Not many people know the reason the follies are done at ACBS, so let me illustrate why they are important. When we create a divide between us normal folk and the ‘great’ people of this world, as if we are fundamentally different human beings, it stifles progress. In other words, we often feel such inferiority that we become afraid to contribute. The follies were created so that the ACBS community would always be reminded that it is bigger than its guru’s. And this new appreciation of mine, knowing that the people I would have previously put on a pedestal are ‘just humans’, like me, opens the pathway for contribution. If Martin Luther King could not change the world by himself, then Steve Hayes will not either. The only way that ACBS will succeed in its ambition of creating a psychological therapy more adequate at treating the human condition will be as a community of ‘just humans’.
But more broadly, next time you see hate, prejudice, discrimination or inequality, remember that those people are just human, like you. And remember that they are people whose experiences have shaped who they are, just like you. Let me assure you that it is a pragmatic and useful position to take; it means that the actions of human beings become more understandable because they are linked to their learning histories, which any of us could have had as humans. In fact, it means that the way in which certain negative traits are attached to entire groups of certain people becomes ludicrous, given that the people within those groups would have had totally different learning experiences. And it means that the possibility for change increases because of the knowledge that changing experience will alter behaviour.
I guess that is the take home point here; I know good white people and bad white people, and I know good black people and bad black people (forgive me for not using examples of other important prejudices, but the rationale is the same). It turns out that I know good people and bad people! And I’m more inclined to think that the good and bad behaviours of these people have more to do with their human experiences than their whiteness or blackness. And from this position, in a world of ‘just humans’, prejudice can’t survive.