The danger of assumptions

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What do you see in this image? Now look again.

I read how earlier generations of Asian-Americans often assumed that racist slurs and violence against them are just ‘part of the deal’ of being in this country. Now younger generations recognize that they should be treated with respect as Americans, as humans, regardless of ethnicity, and are speaking out. Yay for challenging that assumption!

Yay for challenging all assumptions. What assumptions do you have that might not hold up to closer scrutiny? Whatever they are, you can be sure you are not alone. Assumptions are a mental shorthand, a way of filing information away so we have less things to think about in our busy lives. But the very assumptions we make so we don’t have to worry about them cause underlying and sometimes overwhelming problems.

Unexamined assumptions have created a world in which cultural, religious, sexual-oriented, and gender-identified minorities suffer violence against them. And it isn’t only minorities. Women throughout recorded history have suffered violence and lack of freedom, and in many cases were taught by women to accept this treatment as a necessary evil to protect and provide for offspring. 

It takes courage to challenge assumptions. And it takes fortitude and foresight to recognize that until there is universal respect for all, none of us is safe from the erroneous assumptions that thrive on fear.

Fear is at the core of all of our problems, personal and cultural. While fear can save lives in a moment of danger, fear as an underlying motivation has been used as a weapon to secure and maintain power. So many of the assumptions we have inherited have been taught as survival techniques: Keep your head down and stay out of trouble. Don’t speak up! Don’t draw attention!

It takes a brave person to challenge assumptions. But when they do, others see the possibility that they can safely challenge assumptions too. And so in our community right now there are placards, many handmade, that say Black Lives Matter, and speak to the values they care about in their homes and lives. This is still bravery. Speaking up, speaking out, being clear is never easy, but it is how we grow as individuals, as communities, and as a species. In this same community it wasn’t that many decades ago that the deeds on the houses had wording to exclude the right of Blacks to own them. That verbiage is crossed out now, but it’s there on the document as a testament to the awakening work of those who challenged assumptions, including my mother who as a real estate agent in the mid-1960s was at odds with her cohorts when she volunteered in support of making such deeds illegal. Thanks, Mom!

Speaking of moms, an article in Time magazine shared how a number of mothers who are also doctors, and especially epidemiologists, have taken on the added role in their communities and expanding online networks, to speak in plain language about COVID. I appreciate how by their actions they challenged the assumption that only Dr. Fauci and the government could help to fight misinformation and the virus. Thanks, moms!!!

I am heartened by all the people stepping up and seeing the importance of challenging assumptions. But if we are not attentive, if we don’t pause, reflect, and take time for self-inquiry, we will simply replace old assumptions with new ones. Assumptions about the world, other people, and ourselves — about who we are and how we imagine that others see us. Our assumptions direct our actions and ricochet out, affecting everyone we encounter, fueling or challenging their assumptions which in turn affect everyone they encounter. If we fail to see the interconnection of all life, that we are a world community of beings that are all in this together, if we fall for the idea that any one of us got where we are on our own, then our assumptions are toxic for ourselves and all life. Erroneous assumptions are at the basis of delusion, one of the three poisons identified by the Buddha. Think about the people who stormed the Capitol on Jan 6th, what assumptions were they acting upon?

In class we had a wonderful conversation about all this, with many wise contributions, but the one that stays with me especially strongly is the story of a classroom of Navajo teenagers being taught math by a white teacher who assigned them a challenging word problem. They all worked on it diligently until one student got the answer. The teacher gave kudos to him, but was alarmed when all the students clapped excitedly, then rose to leave. “Wait, where are you going? Get back to work and solve your problem.” From their perspective, the problem had been solved. There was no reason for each one of them to do the same work again to achieve something that had already been achieved. The assumption of the teacher that individual success was the purpose of learning met its match with students who saw themselves as intrinsic to a whole, that it was the community that mattered. Cultural misunderstandings can be delightful and insightful, but they can also be dangerous if we take our assumptions to be the truth and other people’s perceptions as wrong.

Assumptions take root from not paying attention and they can get us in a stranglehold if we are afraid to look more closely. We keep turning away—out of habit, hurry, or discomfort with what we might discover—when we need to rest in awareness and see what is arising in our experience.  We don’t even realize our acceptance of assumptions is causing ourselves and all around us to suffer.

This extended period of the pandemic has given many of us the unexpected opportunity to look more closely. Let us all benefit from it. And when we are able to resume ‘normal’ life again, let’s use what we have learned to make wise choices and let go of the dangerous shorthand of assumptions.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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