Be afraid. Be very afraid. But not for the reasons you might think. We are living in precipitous times. We are in danger of losing our humanity through fear. Fear of what and who we do not know.
I am writing this in the Charles de Gaulle airport as I wait for my flight home to Canada. My partner, Jerry Nagel, and I have been visiting Paris and Rennes in France. Teaching international students at IGR is what brought us here – this year and in the past – for Jerry many years, for me more recently.
Last year we came to France about two months after the Charlie Hebdo attack. We did not see a discernible difference in the city. A year later, four months after the co-ordinated attacks on public places in Paris, we are seeing differences. There are fewer people in the cafés, fewer people walking the streets and more taxis than we could count at every taxi stand we passed. Last year we often had to wait if we were looking for a cab. And, while we were here, the attack in Brussels at the airport and the Metro.
We know some tourists are staying home. We had friends who wanted to come on this trip with us but decided to stay home after the November attacks, understandably, because of a prior experience of being stuck in Mexico after the attack on the Twin Towers in New York back in 2001 when air travel to/from the US was stopped for an unknown and indefinite time. We cannot imagine how much more terrifying it would have been for them to have been here with us in this time. And we know they are not the only ones who are staying home.
We know Parisians are staying home too. A city known for its outdoor culture, its fabulous cafés and its walkability, we have seen fewer Parisians strolling in the streets. The cafés we love to go to are either easy to get in – like Les Deux Magots where we have often had to hover to find a seat in the past – or closed, like Café Conti, a long standing local business.
People are staying home – whether in Paris or from abroad – because they are afraid. Afraid of terrorism. Afraid of immigrants and refugees. Afraid of Muslims. Afraid of vague threats that have no substance and lots of rhetoric behind them. Afraid of what they do not know.
This is in direct contrast to the students we were working with in Rennes who came from a dozen or more different countries, among them China, Korea, Vietnam, Ecuador, Congo, Germany, the US, France, Croatia, Slovenia, Columbia and more. The International MBA students have been together since September. The International Exchange students only since January. Jerry and I teach Participatory Leadership practices and Worldview Intelligence. We invite them to meet each other in ways they have not yet done so.
The Worldview exploration offers them a way to see and articulate their own worldview and then to be in conversation with others, to be curious about their worldview. For the students, one of the biggest insights was that across countries and cultures, there were many points of connection. And within countries and cultures there can be vast differences; so much so that you cannot ascribe one worldview to an entire country or culture.
We brought all the students together in a planned World Café the morning after the Brussels bombing. We asked them, when they look around at all that is happening in the world, what gives them strength? Then we asked them, if they could change one thing in the world, what would it be? And then, given the conversations they’ve been in, given what they have been experiencing and what they know about the world, how do they want to live their lives?
The harvest was inspiring. These students between 20 and 30 years old, want to live a life where they meet their neighbours – near and far, where they learn the stories of other people, where they take care with the assumptions they make about individuals, groups or cultures they do not know, where they continue to travel to expand their worldviews, and make connections in many ways, to better the world and better their own lives.
With the real and perceived threats we are faced with in the world right now, the most dangerous thing we can do is hunker down in fear, isolate ourselves or our thinking in our home bases and imagine all kinds of frightening stories about people we do not know, people who are different than us.
We may be in danger of forgetting our humanity. We forget that people fleeing war torn countries are human beings afraid for their lives and their families, with nowhere to go and no homes for their children to live in right now. They don’t want to be on the move. They have no choice. And they have been dying by the thousands in their attempts to flee that which is untenable. Are there terrorists among them? Maybe. But not likely. Will we condemn whole groups of people to living in no-man’s lands of refugee camps because there may be a terrorist among them? We already know segregating people does not work. The story of the US Japanese internment camps in the second world war is just one example.
And Muslims? We forget about the Crusades and so many other wars and acts of terror carried out in the name of Christian religion. Were/are all Christians the same? No. Why would we brand millions of people based on the actions of a few? Because of unfounded fear.
Think about this for a moment. When we say Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, American, French, German, Indian, African, Australian, Brazilian, Asian, Columbian, Mexican, Canadian (insert some other country/nationality here), what immediately comes to mind? Whatever it is, it is a small slice of the worldview of that country, that religion, that culture. We work with labels because this is what we know but the information labels give us is extremely limited.
The shortest distance between two people is a story. Worldview Intelligence provides a structured approach to surfacing and sharing stories, to expanding our understanding that we are multi-dimensional beings, cultures, countries and religions. We need these explorations now more than ever.
Do not hunker down right now. Do not isolate yourself. Do not be swept away by unsubstantiated rhetoric designed to make you even more fearful. Be wary of your assumptions, especially the ones that take you to fear. Do not brand one country, culture, religion or group with a single news story, a single glimpse into a world you might not know. Be prepared to ask, investigate, explore – even if you are doing it from the relative safety of your own home. For sure, keep your friends and family close and, if you are up to it, travel to as many places as you can to understand it is our diversity that keeps us strong and shows us our humanity. It is only in remembering our humanity and the humanity of others, that we will become safer in the world.