Calming Ourselves Down

On December 17th, Cheryl LaPorte, a world geography teacher in the Augusta County Schools in Virginia, gave her students a homework assignment taken from a standard workbook on world religions: "Here is the shahada, the Islamic statement of faith, written in Arabic. In the space below, try copying it by hand. This should give you an idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy." By the next morning, all classes and extracurricular activities in the school were cancelled, due to a flood of angry parents who charged the teacher was promoting Islam and demanded she be fired. Complaints also came from outside the area.

Could she have chosen a different Arabic statement for her students? Yes, and the school system indicated she would in the future. Did some people over react? Yes. Adults who should have put this in perspective did not.

This is not an isolated case. A casual look at stories that spread virally, often distorted or without factual basis, and a few minutes spent reading the angry, often vicious comments people post and tweet via social media, suggest that many Americans are losing the ability to put lots of events in proper context. They go postal when calm detachment is a more appropriate response.

Another example. Many Americans are irate that the federal government did not stop the San Bernardino attack, railing against the ineptness of counter-terrorism efforts. It might help if Americans recognized that nearly 50 terrorist plots have been disrupted since 9/11, along with many other arrests of those in earlier stages of terrorist planning, including nearly 60 this year alone. Americans convinced that Muslims are intent on replacing our government with Sharia law might also take a step back. Polls show that Americans think Muslims already account for 15 percent of the U.S. population. The actual figure is 0.9 percent.

When we lose perspective, we allow ourselves to be thrown off balance, magnifying the transitory event. We develop tunnel vision, unable to see the more permanent and serious issues that need addressing. The overwhelming attention to presidential polls and political catfights, for example, has relegated serious discussion of education, jobs, the environment and the vulnerability of infrastructure -- to name a few issues -- to the back burner in our national discourse.

When we lose perspective, we allow fear and anger to dominate, suppressing rational thinking. Angry people don't talk with each other, an essential process in maintaining civil society. They focus on winning. When the Intercultural Affairs Committee at Yale sent an email this fall to students cautioning them about choosing Halloween costumes that might offend others, Erika Christakis, a lecturer, wrote an email response. She wondered if there was no "room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious... a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? " It seems, she said, that "American universities... have become places of censure and prohibition." Her husband, Nicholas, a Yale professor, was later surrounded by angry students and told them "if you don't like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society." In other words, chill out and try to dialogue with each other.

Blowing events out of proportion also leads to simplistic demands for change. The border with Mexico is not fully secure, but focusing almost exclusively on instances of crimes by a relatively small number of illegal immigrants and looking at no statistics on how many are stopped and returned has distorted our perspective and propelled proposals to forcibly round up and deport millions, an effort that is fiscally and operationally unworkable, Constitutionally doubtful, and contrary to the humanitarian values enshrined in our history and religious practice.

Escalating events beyond their real significance also leads to polarized and stereotypical thinking. We easily fall prey to an "us vs. them" mentality, attributing motives to people who belong to a group we have decided to fear. We become willing to act with others in ways that violate our values. We lose part of our humanity. Our ability to empathize, to see the world from another's perspective, is diminished. Cheryl LaPorte became for her angry accusers not a teacher with feelings, prone as are all humans to make a mistake, but a demon out to destroy the Christian religion -- and thus worthy of being professionally destroyed and personally humiliated.

When we lose perspective, the world becomes a joyless place as well. We become a nation perpetually angry, convinced we are on the wrong track. We lose sight of the strengths we have to address the problems that demand attention.

In the dangerous, fast-paced, uncertainty that marks our world, it is easy to become unsettled by events. It may be comforting to lash out, to join a chorus of condemnation that offers, for a moment, a foundation beneath the unsteady earth of our lives. But it is a foundation upon which chimeras will be built. We can choose instead to step back, to put things in perspective. Kipling gave us good advice in his poem If. "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs... " he said, you are on the road to being fully human, centered in a world that badly needs balance.