Linda: We live in a world in which people are defined and identified and even valued in accordance with the groups to which they belong. These characterizations are based on factors such as skin color, sexual preferences, religious beliefs, gender, age, political affiliation, financial status, and nationality, to name a few.
The tendency to form and fix beliefs about others on the basis of these arbitrary factors seems to have led to many of our planet's most intractable problems. Once we decide that there is significance to these differences, it is all but inevitable that we will project varying degrees of value upon each group. Emphasizing our differences rather than the common ground that all human beings share, automatically sets into play a process that is inherently divisive, competitive, and ultimately destructive.
The tendency to do this seems so deeply ingrained in our species that most of us take this process for granted, assuming that it is just the way people are and always have been. We may feel grateful if we are affiliated with groups that are assigned higher social status and are, therefore "privileged," just as we may feel inferior or resentful if we are identified with lower status groups.
This process is neither natural nor inevitable. It is, like any other repeated pattern, a habit that we have acquired and reinforced as a means of feeling secure in the safety of the group with which we are identified. It takes courage and integrity to risk standing alone in the presence of our own truth. The 'hero' is not necessarily someone who rescues innocent victims from persecution or danger, but rather someone whose life is an embodiment of integrity and universal respect and who is not limited by cultural conditioning.
Albert Einstein talked about this kind of respect when he wrote: "A human being is part of the whole called by us 'universe', a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
The task of freeing ourselves from our perceptual prison is a compelling and sometimes daunting challenge. In taking it on, we discover that we are not alone in our quest to bring compassion and respect to our universe. As we engage this commitment, we not only begin to see how many others are sharing the journey of awakening with us, but our very efforts illuminate possibilities that others may not have even seen before. The choice to free ourselves is itself both personally and socially transformative. The greatest gift that we can give to the other beings that share this extraordinary planet with us is the gift of our own liberation.