I often think about how people from other parts of the world would feel about the life I live in America. Just the other night, I went to dinner at a great Cajun restaurant that is one of the hottest places to eat in the city, and halfway through my meal, I had this moment of almost clairvoyant mindfulness where I thought about what the entire scene would be like for someone living in a tribal community in West Papua. It was one of those rare moments of brief clarity where things go silent and everyone literally slows down in my field of vision.
I say West Papua because I’ve started watching a six-part show on the Discovery network about two guys who move in with a tribe of cannibals known as the Kombai in that remote section of Indonesia. Seeing these people has really challenged my own perceptions of how I judge people based on their values and lifestyle – the Kombai are just as human as you or me, though they have lived a very different type of life that is relatively unchanged since the Stone Age.
It’s interesting, because I don’t judge the Kombai, nor do I really have to make an effort not to judge any culture that is different from ours. It just comes naturally to me. This was the case in Cambodia, and it was the case when I worked as a journalist covering the diverse immigrant communities in the D.C. suburbs. Not once did I pass judgment in my mind.
But when it comes to people here, that’s another story altogether. Here, for example, is a sampling of my inner monologue last night during my commute home on the subway. And yes, I actually thought these things about my fellow commuters.
Does that guy realize he looks like a freak wearing those tacky lime green Euro sunglasses while he’s riding a train underground?
That skirt is way too small for her backside.
What kind of jerk stands in front of the door so that people can’t get off a crowded train?
Seriously, did he try to cut his own hair?
It’s shocking to me when I realize the thoughts that instantaneously fly through my mind in these situations. Do I always have these type of thoughts? No. Does everyone think things like this? Of course. The key, I guess, is being mindful of it and then breaking the habit of mentally categorizing random strangers according to some equally random standards I set in the back of my mind. Chalk up one more reason to work on taming the monkey.
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