I read about the following on the Internet. Doreen, aged 79, finished all the shopping on her weekly list at her local Walmart supermarket. As she walked towards her car in the Walmart parking lot she suddenly came to a halt. She saw that four youths had broken into her car and were backing out of the space, ready to take her car for a ride. Not one to be trifled with, Doreen became agitated and, dropping her shopping to the ground, she drew a handgun from her bag, ran up to the driver’s window and screamed as loud as her little lungs would allow, “I have a gun and I know how to use it. Get out of the car you horrible little men!!!” The four young men didn’t wait around for a second invitation: Tumbling out of the car they all took off running as fast as they could go.
Doreen, somewhat shaken, then proceeded to load her shopping bags into the back of the car. She got into the driver’s seat. As hard as Doreen tried she could not get her key to fit into the ignition. Then it began to dawn on her why. She got out of the car and saw her own car in another row nearby. Transferring her bags into her own car, she then drove to the nearest Police Station. As Doreen was recounting her mistake to the Duty Sergeant taking her report she wondered why he kept giggling and smiling. Eventually he pointed to the bench over against the wall where Doreen saw four youths, faces extremely pale as they stared back at her in terror, who had been describing to another Sergeant how a crazy little old lady had stolen their car by waving a gun at them! Doreen was not charged.
Like Doreen, at one time or another, we have all had to say, “Oh, well, I assumed…” And sometimes those assumptions are just flat-out wrong. In subtle ways our assumptions can be fed and sustained by our prejudices. Which raises the question: To what extent are we able to perceive reality on its own terms without our prejudices and assumptions distorting what we see and how we understand it? Take, for instance, the issue of “difference”: different religious practices, different sexual orientation, different foods, and different cultural customs. When we run into difference… are we automatically made anxious? Or are we excited by the difference? And what does that anxiety or excitement say about our inner life? What part do our prejudices play in our initial reaction to difference?
The good news is that we CAN learn to change our tendency to assume. Knowing of our tendency to make automatic assumptions in the face of difference we can train ourselves to not automatically reject that which is different, and give customs, food and people a chance to reveal their inner worth to us. Since prejudices tend to cause us to dismiss difference, by being aware of our prejudices we can, to some extent, re-train those prejudices by getting to know that which we would automatically dismiss. As a kid I had a prejudice against Brussels Sprouts – I HATED them! As a result of that prejudice as an adult I always passed them by. One meal, as I went to automatically pass the bowl off to the person next to me, I suddenly wondered how I, as an adult, would now perceive those Brussels Sprouts… so I took some, tasted, and to my astonishment discovered that I now LOVE them! Who knew?! I certainly didn’t!
So the moral of the story is: Unlike Doreen, when we assume, let’s not automatically pull out that gun!