Saturday, May 17, 2008

In the Sweet By and By

I do sociology field work: I conduct surveys for a university. The survey I'm currently working on is the first and longest on-going social research project. We ask a lot of questions about people's opinions on free speech, attitudes about gender issues and how they feel about people of other races. We also ask a lot of questions about religious beliefs. I'm really good at my job which means that I remain completely neutral no matter what a person says to me and that allows people to answer the questions with confidence that I am not judging them. I'd say about 95% of the respondents leave our interview thinking that I believe the same as them because I've made them feel comfortable and supported to be able to give their opinions honestly. The other 5% are the kind of people who feel that their ideas and beliefs are so extreme that no one could ever support their beliefs and like it that way (they tend to be rather paranoic and, oddly, sometimes their opinions are not that extreme at all).

I'd like to believe that our society is making "progress"; that we are becoming more tolerant and unified and moving forward in our abilities to respect and accept one another. I'd like to believe that we judge one another on "the quality of one's character, not the color of one's skin". I'd like to believe that we are learning that our Earth is a precious and fragile gift and that we have to nurture it and treat it with respect. What I hear over and over and over makes me feel like I'm hoping in vain.

I conducted 8 interviews this last week (one energy consumption survey and the rest the social survey). I've been doing this job for six years; this is the fourth time I've conducted this social survey. I should be immune to letting it get me down but I am beginning to feel overwhelmed by it.

Over and over this week I've had people tell me they believe Blacks are lazy, homosexuals should have no rights, and that our government is spending too much money on the environment and welfare but not enough on national defense. When asked questions about how they feel about other races, at first they sort of whisper their answers but when I don't show a negative reaction, they say, "Well, I'm going to be honest here. I don't mean to sound racist but...". They don't even bother attempting to sound politically correct when talking about gender roles.

And over and over again, I hear about how they are "very" or "moderately religious" and how they "try hard to carry my religious beliefs over into all my other dealings in life". Each of these racist, homophobic, xenophobic people have called themselves Christians. Most of them answer "yes" to the question: "Have you ever tried to get someone to believe in Jesus Christ or to accept Jesus Christ as his or her savior?" (and those who answer "no" do so with a demeanor of shame or regret).

The way I understand Jesus is pretty much completely opposite of how these folks believe. There's no compassion or even any empathy I hear, no willingness to try to see things from any perspective other than "I've got mine and I'm not gonna share it". And they are typical, average people. As a matter of fact, this study is designed to be absolutely random, meaning that we deliberately select a random cross-section of addresses.

Over the years I have had a few "yellow-dog Democrats" but I've recently come to see that they are mostly all pretty old and are dying off and their children and grand-children are all social conservatives and political Republicans.

I don't know what to do with the vitriol, animosity and lack of tolerance I learn about almost daily in my job. I feel deeply sad about how divided our society is; how mistrustful people are of one another. I am incredibly frustrated by how people are taught how to perceive the world by Fox News and by their preachers and never question what they're told. I'm hurt by how people can think terrible thoughts about other people by labeling them "them" never once realizing that there is no "other": We are all one and God loves us all the same AND WANTS US TO LOVE ONE ANOTHER ALL THE SAME.

Surprisingly, I am able to see "that of God" in most people I interview. I see how narrow their world is and how little curiosity they have and how closed their minds are. I don't fault them for living in a closed world. I understand their need to feel safe and secure in a world they perceive to be unstable and constantly changing. I guess what I'm angry about is the people who gain power by keeping these regular folks afraid so they remain closed minded.

I honestly can't even begin to see a way out of this mess. I can't imagine what one person or a community of people or a policy or a law could do to make the changes necessary to open people's minds and hearts. When the preachers are so busy making people indignant about evolution being taught in the classrooms and "the homosexual agenda", the preachers keep everyday people fearful and angry and stirred up and not willing to engage in dialogue with anyone who doesn't believe exactly the same way.

I guess part of the reason I'm so down is that I've recently learned that someone I've known for a long, long time, someone I used to know to be intelligent, rational and curious about the world, won't vote for Barak Obama because she has a "gut feeling that he may be the anti-christ". I've never known this woman to be racist in any way; she has always been fair about not assuming anything about a person based on external or superficial appearances. I don't know if it's because she is getting older, because she is dealing with a family situation that makes her feel out of control, because the people she hangs out with are very, very fundamentalist, something else, or all these reasons, but she seems to be becoming very narrow and rigid, and frankly, very frightening (to me) in her ideas. We were discussing the earthquake in China and the typhoon in Myanmar yesterday when she made a comment about "the end times". I don't know what to say to that. I don't know how to respond to something that is so so SO crazy and yet so widely accepted. Shortly after that conversation, I was listening to "Fresh Air with Terry Gross" when a 2006 interview with John Hagee, a megachurch preacher from Texas was aired. He explains about wanting to help bring on "the end times" and, ultimately, "the rapture" by supporting Israeli independence. He also talks about how hurricane Katrina was God's punishment for the wicked. The woman I know supports that line of thinking; she believes similarly because she has been told by authorities who say they speak for God that these things are so (forget trying to have a conversation about biblical interpretation).

In my job, I can't engage in any way: I must remain completely neutral. What I can do, though, is to hold each of my respondents in the Light. Just a little prayer for enlightenment as I'm leaving. It's not much but it's all I've got to work with and maybe it'll help me feel a little bit better. And I guess, the same for the woman I know. We've tried to avoid having any conversations that will touch on politics or religion (failing, sometimes, obviously). I can't talk with her about my beliefs and I am not able to listen to her talk about hers (I was raised with that kind of thinking and it disturbs me waaaay too much to listen to it). All I can do is to turn it over to God and let God deal with it.

I still feel sad to live in this society so full of such deep division. Sheesh. All I can do is "let go and let God" which is not that different from hoping for the "promised land" in the "sweet by and by". I really hope that reincarnation is the way it'll unfold so we all get another chance to get it right. I want us to have the opportunity--me, George Bush, John Hagee, the woman I know, everybody I've interviewed lately, etc.--to get it right.