We pray in the name of all traditions.
May we practice our faith with sincerity,
increase our capacity for love,
and unveil the peaceful essence we seek.
May our faith transmute anger into action,
melt away hatred with love,
and spur us to serve the poor, sick, and old.
May our strong attraction to one path,
not create repulsion for other paths.
May we allow other people to foster their beliefs,
even when we think they are wrong.
May we remember that we all belong to one human race,
that ideologies and theologies are only a part of who we are,
and that we all share traits that make us human.
May we honor diversity when appropriate,
celebrate unity when we see it,
and find ways to work together.
May we learn to disagree without being disagreeable,
sow the seeds of peace when we encounter hostility,
and rejoice in friendliness wherever we find it.
We ask for strength to overcome prejudices,
clarity to see our biases,
and courage to act justly in the face of injustice.
When I went to the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan this summer, I was treated to a charming and random act of kindness. As soon as I purchased museum admission, my friend and I were presented with mysterious folded and sealed letters. I opened my letter and was delighted to find a unique and thoughtful note: “Please enjoy the entire museum. Start from the top and work your way down. Smile today. Be the reason someone else smiles today. Enjoy!”
I was intrigued as to what prompted my new friend Gia to spend time on this gesture of kindness for a person she didn’t know, and whose reaction she wouldn’t see. I soon found out. Rounding the corner, I came across an invitation to write a letter of my own.
This invitation spoke of the “karmic ripples” one can create by participating in this delightful act of kindness. Having been touched by Gia, I paid it forward, and felt like an integral link in a chain of visitors, connected across time and experience.
It was a small but uplifting moment. It can be hard to feel positive these days, which often feel divisive, even dehumanizing.
It seems like we’re stuck in an unending chain of negativity. We’re more polarized than ever and a splintered news media entrenches us further. Social media algorithms ensure our existing views are reinforced. When we venture out of our social media bunkers we can find ourselves in conversation threads that bring out the worst in us, sending us back to our tribe and perpetuating our distrust of others.
That unexpected pay-it-forward experience at the Rubin Museum reestablished my feeling of interconnectedness. I knew that this experience made me feel good, and I wondered, can random acts of kindness jolt us out of an us-vs-them mentality and restore our faith in humanity?
The Psychological Benefits that Come with Random Acts of Kindness
Science supports that these little acts of kindness can have a big emotional impact. The ripples are real. Whether a giver, a receiver, or even simply an observer of a kindness, we are positively impacted both individually and collectively.
My fellow Americans,
I think it is time we talked. Not argued, but talked, you know, like adults do when they attempt to resolve their differences. Before we do, though, I believe that we need to make some adjustments to our approach. To assist with that process, allow me reference three ideas we use here at Harmony Interfaith Initiative, each of them addressing major points in regards to dialogue and reconciliation.
The Human Persona and The Ideological Persona
Padraig O’Malley, who was a facilitator during the Northern Ireland peace process, made the case that each human being has two personas, the ideological persona and the human persona. He pointed out that the only way to dehumanize the other is to see him or her only in terms of ideology and forget their humanity.
Think about that for a moment. Whenever we use an ideological label to describe a person, we fall into the trap of dehumanizing. It’s a great way to polarize, but a lousy way to live and can only lead to further divisions and hostilities.
Based on O’Malley’s concept, the first step towards dialogue is to remember that we are human and that the person on the other side of the discussion is also human, not merely a Christian or a Muslim, a conservative or a liberal, a snowflake or a gun rights activist, a climate warrior or a climate denier. Those are ideological stances people have taken, not something they are born with.
In our work at Harmony Interfaith Initiative, we are constantly reaching out to people and offering them our services. As one would expect, we get mixed responses. I’ve personally been surprised by one repeated response that I had not anticipated. In hindsight, maybe I should have seen it coming.
Here is what the gist of the response sounds like: “We are in complete harmony with each other here at the [church, temple, synagogue, spiritual center] and would welcome any and all to come and be with us. We see no need to engage in interfaith efforts at this time.” Reading between the lines, one can interpret the response this way: “We are okay. It’s them, not us.”
Maybe that is at the heart of the problem. No one thinks that they are to blame. Few are willing to accept responsibility and try to bridge divides. Think about it. Liberals think that conservatives are to blame for the ill will that exists between them, and Conservatives think Liberals are to blame. Christians think that Muslims are to blame and vice versa. The list goes on. Even interfaith activists think that those who refuse to participate are to blame.
We Are All Involved
In his interreligious principles, Dr. Leonard J. Swidler, points out that those who engage in interfaith dialogue need to be, “minimally self-critical of both themselves and their own religious or ideological traditions.”
Harmony. Dignity. Compassion. Civility. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Words to live by. Words to heal by. How good it is to hear voices near and far proclaim such words in a world in which they seem so under siege and out of style.
I have long been a person who reacts, as many do, with a sense of moral outrage to divisiveness, prejudice, selfishness, and extremism. Nevertheless, I have mostly sat by passively, hoping for better things to come. But in recent times "better things" seem to be growing more and more scarce. The tides of change seem to be accelerating in the wrong direction.
Polarized When Anonymous
Some time ago I reached a point where a voice within my heart could no longer be silenced. If I was not in some way part of a solution, I was part of the problem. I began reading. I started with Desmond Tutu’s The Book of Forgiving. That led me to Donna Hicks’ Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict. I continued reading similar works and discovering web sites like this one that offered solutions and told stories of changed lives.
Early in my research I settled on a model that made sense to me and that seemed within my reach to implement. It assumes that dissimilar or opposing groups are most likely to become polarized when they are most anonymous to each other. I can only violate someone’s dignity if I first make him less than human in my mind. The seeds of acrimony grow where people are lumped into stereotypes, where they are misunderstood, where they are demonized.
To the extent this is true, an effective antidote may be found in breaking through the anonymity. I began to make plans to bring people from opposite sides of divides together in face-to-face, small group meetings where each person has a name and a face and a story about how they came to be the way they are. In an effort to brand the concept, I began to call it Dignity Dialogues. Mind you, I branded it only as a way to refer to the model, not with any thought of making it a business.
Human beings have a tendency to place other human beings on a pedestal. We look for examples of perfection and hold them up in contrast with the fallibility of the rest of us. Perfection is the ideal, the aspiration, the pinnacle. We long for it. And yet, more often than not, it turns out to be a mirage, a form of wishful thinking.
It's a story as old as time. A portrait of perfection is toppled when someone gets close enough to the person in question to see the truth (which is that some people are better than others, but none of us are truly perfect or infallible). An old Indian aphorism exemplifies this when it tells us that spiritual masters are like fire. If you are too far away, you get no heat. If you come too close, you get burned.
For most of us, if not all, perfection is not in the cards. But progress is. And we can all strive to be better.
Why Choose Progress?
Encouraging people to choose progress over perfection has become a staple in psychology, especially in cognitive behavioral therapy. In his landmark book, Feeling Good, one of the pioneers of CBT, David D. Burns wrote:
“Aim for success, not perfection. Never give up your right to be wrong, because then you will lose the ability to learn new things and move forward with your life. Remember that fear always lurks behind perfectionism. Confronting your fears and allowing yourself the right to be human can, paradoxically, make yourself a happier and more productive person.”
Happier and more productive. That sounds like a recipe for creating harmony from within.
Setting Ourselves Up for Failure
If this is true about individuals, isn’t it doubly true about groups? Aren’t we setting ourselves up for failure by aiming for perfect interactions or expecting too much from each other?
In fields such as interfaith work, community bridge building and social harmony, we cannot allow ourselves to be tempted by perfection. If we are expecting flawlessness, we will fail to see progress. For example:
In my line work, I am fortunate enough to cross paths with great people that are doing important work all around the globe, from South Africa to Great Britain, Canada to India, Texas to Minneapolis, and beyond.
All the people I communicate with at this level are working actively towards social harmony. For one reason or another, they have realized that social harmony is the cornerstone of society. Instead of seeing it as something nice or pleasant, they see it as imperative, in the same category as food, roads, education, and healthcare.
Seeing the Shadow or Being Whipped
An ancient parable tells us that a wise horse moves when he sees the shadow of the whip, while a foolish horse needs to be whipped every step of the way. The people I work with have seen the shadow that social discord is creating.
Last summer, I facilitated a course with nearly three hundred people from over twenty countries. More than half of them attended the course because they recognized the signs of division and acrimony as potentially dangerous. All of them wanted to learn strategies to push against the forces of friction and work towards social harmony.
Sadly, many in the larger population refuse to see the shadows of the ‘whips’ that are being cast all around them. Like the foolish horse, they are waiting for the whip to crack on their backside before they move a muscle. By then it may be too late.
When religion is based on fear, not Love,
You cannot feel that God's within,
You're stuck with the fear of "that God above,"
And spend your days in dreading "sin,"
You feel threatened that folks outside
Will obscure the "divine truth" from others,
And cannot see it's not they who hide,
The Oneness you share with all sisters and brothers,
You cling to verses in a book,
And dare not go within yourself,
You cannot take that deeper look,
When you put the book up on the shelf,
The darkest fears then make you tell,
All sorts of lies you think are real,
You'd rather say, "Kill the infidel!"
Than see inside behind your zeal,
Plowing Heaven under, creating "hell,"
You run from what you cannot feel,
And while obsessed with hatred and killing,
Far from the Truth behind your chapter and verse,
Seeing only difference in those unwilling
To follow your way, you make things worse.
I care about society. That is why I have always had an interest in politics. Not because of the personal attacks, drama, and larger than life personalities, but because of the implications on society. More than once in the past few years I have been tempted to throw myself into the mix and start running for office. But then I stop a moment, think about the implications and withdraw.
Why? Because I want to work towards a more harmonious society and in order to become elected in the current atmosphere the business of politics expects the opposite. Even those who champion equal rights and harmony have begun stooping to the level of name-calling and grandstanding. It seems that (almost) every politician is forced to take tougher and more unequivocal stances to get elected. There is no room for nuance or working across the isle.
The same is true about activists. They need to take ever-tougher stances (it seems) and scream bloody murder on social media and in the streets to gain attention. I hear what they are saying and agree with a lot of it, but again, it seems counter to the goal of creating social harmony where people can civilly air their disagreements without demonizing each other.
King and Gandhi
The more I study what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas K. Gandhi did in their nonviolent movements, the more impressed I am with the poise they showed in the face of adversity and their unwavering commitment to love.
It’s easy to become angry and irritated in the face of injustice, biases, and discrimination and respond in kind. It’s also easy to become so overwhelmed and enraged that it feels justified and like the right thing to do. I know that both Gandhi and King struggled with those emotions time and time again but they restrained themselves, both advocating love for those who would call themselves their enemies. That must have taken will, determination, and faith.
We have incredible amounts of information at our fingertips. Anyone with a smartphone can get educated about whatever they are interested in—for free. But something has gone terribly wrong. What was once dubbed the Age of Information can now rightfully be called the Age of Misinformation… and we are all a part of the problem.
I get it. Controversy screams at us in a sea of endless information. It self-perpetuates through a cycle of clicks and shares and is fueled by supporters, trolls and outrage.
But at what point will we stop and realize that this trend has turned into a harmful addiction?
When will we realize that we have created an undercurrent of division that has played right into the hands of those who generate the acrimony, and have, quite frankly, succeeded in disrupting our society far beyond their wildest dreams?
When will we accept responsibility for our own part in creating this online phenomenon?
And when will we collectively realize that the only solution is to stop clicking on everything that triggers us, to stop feeding the monster of division?
A wild campion flower that bloomed in an arctic meadow when mammoths and woolly rhinoceros walked the Earth offered me hope in a difficult time, and I believe she offers hope and guidance for our struggling world today.
Within her delicate white petals and slender dark green leaves is a dramatic tale. She died in the late Pleistocene age 32,000 years ago, stored in an arctic squirrel’s burrow on the banks of the Kolyma River in far eastern Siberia, buried by windblown silt of the ice age, captured in frozen ground 125 feet below the surface of the Earth. Now, she is reborn, having been resurrected by Russian scientists.
When I laid eyes on the little arctic flower in The New York Times, 2.20.2012, I felt ancient memories stir. She entered my consciousness as I stood on the doorway of my sixties weary from months of chemo, surgery, and radiation for breast cancer, thankful for life. Her translucent white petals reminded me of long forgotten dreams. As she was recovered from the frozen dark depths, I would begin to delve into my inner world, my frozen dark depths, and rise naked to buried grief, which helped me to let go of my past and be more alive to the present.
I imagine the ancient flower’s mythical story. Dying in a long-ago cycle of life on Earth, she has returned from the underworld to show her beauty and strength to our world in 2012, the year the Mayan’s predicted the end of a great cycle and the beginning of a new cycle of Life on Earth. She embodies yin and yang, male and female; and she is here to guide us as we learn to not fear the mammoths of our time but to join together in a river of compassion and bear witness to the many stories of pain and suffering.
Bridge Building and Social Harmony
We are an educational and social good interfaith organization. We envision a world where people have access to strategies, methods and ideas that promote social harmony and enable bridge building across divides. To us, interfaith means the continual improvement of interrelations between people who strongly believe in different worldviews.
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©Harmony Interfaith Initiative
Registered in Hays County, Texas
Founded in 2018
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