The other side of the mountain

In a training session years ago and miles away from home, I was asked to “visualize.” I don’t remember what I was supposed to visualize, but I do know that this particular activity was not one for which my scientific training had prepared me.

These days, downtown Asheville is my home. And during the intervening years, I have gradually learned to visualize — to dream of things beyond the present state of affairs, such as what Asheville and Buncombe County could be like in 10 or 20 years.

I recently saw a bumper sticker that read, “One people, one planet, one future.” Expanding on that theme, I visualize, “One people, one neighborhood, one town, one county, one state, one country, one planet.”

But there are obstacles to achieving this unifying, community-building dream. We are divided by skin color, religion, gender, political persuasion, birthplace and so on (fill in your own pet separator here!). We are each of us different from every other. And for diverse reasons, a lot of individuals and groups seem to work really hard to compartmentalize us still further.

There are many variations on this theme: What is not known is to be feared. This instinctive response seems universal, yet few can actually explain their fear. It’s easy to see folks as different, whereas it takes real effort to get to know another person well enough to realize that in many ways, he or she is just like you.

Even within an organization of presumably like-minded souls, we all tend to say, “They did such and so” or “They didn’t do such and so.” Human beings seem to have a remarkable tendency to separate ourselves from others, rather than counting ourselves as part of a group.

Here in Asheville, we have what I like to call “naturally occurring diversity.” I enjoy it greatly, but I have friends who say, “I don’t go downtown unless I have to, because the people you see there are strange; they don’t look like me.” My usual flip response is that if you want apparent homogeneity, go to Hendersonville. (After you get to know them, of course, the folks in Hendersonville are just as different from one another — and just as much alike — as we are in Asheville. They just look more similar on the surface.)

Each of us develops ways to cope with folks “different from ourselves.” When our older granddaughter first visited Asheville at age 10, she was startled to see people who didn’t look like the ones in her hometown. To help us all enjoy the diversity without offending the subject of a comment beginning with, “Look at THAT, Oma/Opa,” we devised a game. When we see folks on the street, we grade them on a scale of one (looking like us) to 10 (looking really, really different). After murmuring a number — three, five, or whatever — we are free to continue enjoying the diversity. (Of course, when you actually engage someone in conversation — even a 10 — you tend to find that they really aren’t all that different after all.)

So how long might it take to realize this vision of one community? Realistically speaking, it will never happen for everyone, because unless one is willing to try, it’s impossible. But for many of us (dare I say most of us?), it could happen within my lifetime.

There are obvious steps that each of us can take to help move us all in the right direction. One is to practice viewing another person as, first and foremost, an individual human being. Rather than focusing on his or her skin color, religion, tattoos/piercings/clothing, political party, county/state/country of origin or whatever, we begin with an awareness that this is another human being whom God created and loves.

And wherever we live, we can take the time to talk to our neighbors. Even downtown Asheville is a neighborhood; indeed, I know more about my neighbors here than I did when I lived in the suburbs! From that starting point, we can gradually get to know folks who live farther away.

We could all stand to work a little harder at getting to know the people within our own sphere of influence, listening to their hopes and dreams and aspirations — and the many ways in which they’re just like us! We are blessed with a wonderful community that can help us move ahead with this, but it’s up to each one of us to choose to be a bit more civil to those who “aren’t like us” or aren’t “our kind.”

Most big changes happen little by little, one person at a time, and nurturing a more tolerant community will take practice, practice, practice. Back in that training course I mentioned up above, we were forbidden to use the phrase, “They made me do it.” Instead, we were instructed to say, “I choose to do it.”

I choose to do better, to work for a heightened sense of community here in our shared mountain paradise. Will you join me?

[George E. Keller is an adjunct professor of physics at UNCA. He serves on the board of Asheville-Buncombe VISION and as webmaster for RiverLink.]

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