This is a hard time to be alive. This is a time of concurrent crises that can stop life in its tracks at any moment. This is a time marred by the spread of a deadly virus, also a time scarred by the deadly effects of systemic racism and punishing disparity. This is a time of ongoing funerals in the human heart.
In the midst of the argument about wearing or not wearing masks to protect each other, the public killing of George Floyd has unmasked the ongoing tragedy of “man’s inhumanity to man.” The callous execution of yet another unarmed black man at the hands of police has torn the skin off the age-old wound of racism and revealed the process of dehumanization which continues to be the deep fault line in our culture.
The actual taking of a life, seen online by millions, becomes symbolic of hundreds of years of crushing the lives of untold numbers of people, simply for being black or brown or something other than “white.” The heartless pretense of one group being superior to others becomes symbolically embodied in a white police officer who, coldly and almost casually, takes the breath of life from a black man being pressed to the ground, calling out to his mother, pleading for air.
Because the killing was so cold-blooded, because it was caught on video, because it comes under the heavy hand of an administration that exploits divisions by race and class, and because it comes in the midst of a pandemic that disproportionately claims the lives of African Americans, Native Americans, and Latino Americans, this heart-breaking, life-stopping moment must become a cultural turning point.
Racism and the delusion of white superiority have had a chokehold on humanity for ages. Systematically treating people as if their lives do not matter depends upon believing that “others” are less than human. The cost of the empty pretense of white superiority can be found in the suffering and death of people of color, but also can be seen in the increasing dehumanization of an entire culture.
As human beings, we live and we die in the context of the stories we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it. At this moment in time, both the future of the world and the sense of genuine humanity are in question.
As a pathologist, I have studied stories from traditions and cultures around the world. When it comes down to the nature of the human soul, two basic and opposite stories tend to persist. One story considers each person to be an accidental being who enters the world as a “blank slate” or an empty soul. After birth, elements of family, social factors and education shape and define a person’s identity and the value of their life.
The blank slate story easily leads to ideas of social determinism in which entire groups of people can be, not just denied opportunities, but be dismissed as being less than human.
The other basic story of the human soul begins with the sense that each person born brings something essential to life. In this story, each soul is unique and each person naturally gifted and imbued with meaning and purpose. In this kind of story, the role of society becomes one of helping each person born to awaken to an inner dream that gives life purpose and meaning.
In this most universal tale of humanity, each person, regardless of race or color, background or orientation comes to life-bearing gifts, and each can be seen to have inner nobility and natural dignity. On that basis, no group can claim to be superior or “more human” because of race or appearance, because of history or background. On that basis, those who deny the basic humanity and dignity of other people only reveal their own lack of humanity.
History is actually written in the depths of individual human souls and the deeply troubled time in which we all find ourselves is a story still being written. If we insist on denying a genuine sense of humanity to some, we can only continue to lose our way and further lose our souls. If we open ourselves to the understanding that we are literally all in the same story, each suffering in our own way, we may find genuine ways to help heal and protect each other while restoring a genuine sense of humanity in ways that bring more meaning and more soul to the world.
Michael Meade is the founder and director of the nonprofit Mosaic Multicultural Foundation and creator of the “Living Myth” podcast.