Understanding instead

I’m feeling sad today. Usually I try to avoid writing when I’m angry or sad, there’s enough angry and sad stuff on the internet already. But today, I saw a writing prompt: “Understanding”. So after a great weekend with wonderful people, and the tragic news from Orlando, feeling sad and writing about understanding just seemed necessary.

I caught up with a friend for dinner the other night. I met her outside the mosque where she had just ducked in for evening prayers. We raced off to dinner because she was, understandably, ravenous after fasting all day. We got a table at a busy café in a hipsterish laneway where everything was halal. I commented on how nice her blazer was and she explained that, because she had been fasting, she was freezing in the air conditioning at her office. She joked about how the Muslim holidays in Singapore had different names from what she was used to, and how she had vehemently stated that Hari Raya was not the holiday at the end of Ramadan, it was Eid. Same holiday, different names.

On Sunday, I met up with some other friends. They offered to take us with them to a Hindu temple and give us a tour. We took off our shoes, leaving them in the shade so they didn’t burn our feet on our return, washed our hands and feet, and headed inside. The temple was busy: children raced around, dodging glares from their parents, women in gorgeous saris and men in their Sunday best accepted flowers from shirtless priests, and families sat together on the ground eating rice and curry. The air was punctuated with the sound of ringing bells and the occasional lilt of a nasal-sounding pipe instrument. My friends walked us around all around the temple, stopping to pray and explain who was who and what was going on. I always feel awkward playing tourist in religious places but no one seemed to mind. Though we stood back, out of the way of people who were performing puja, one of the priests even waved us forward with a big smile and gave us some blessings. It was a really special morning, topped off by a ridiculously delicious South Indian lunch that we ate with our fingers.

As I scrolled through the news from Orlando, a quote popped into my head. I had to trawl through my notes to find it but here it is:

“In a truly dialogic democracy, participants would have to demonstrate knowledge of others before moving on to critical or condescending statements about them” – T. H. Eriksen

Obviously this quote is referring to more political sentiments, but I think it has a powerful message. Surely we should try to know and understand others before we judge and criticise them? It is simplistic to say that a lack of understanding is the root of discrimination. Understanding implies knowledge and learning, questions and answers. Really, these are the steps that are missing. Understanding doesn’t just happen, it’s something you actively work for. And it’s fun! Learning new things about people and places, it’s why so many of us travel. But why are we so reluctant to do that in everyday life? Why is it easier to spew hate from our mouths and keyboards, and even commit acts of violence against those who are different to us?

It seems like, when it comes to people, the unknown is a cause of fear, and fear breeds resentment and hate. But why? How? What has gone so terribly wrong that the unknown now fosters violence instead of curiosity? If human beings had always taken this attitude, we’d still be cowering in caves, waving sharpened sticks at the sky water and cloud grumbles, and dying at the age of 26.

What if we were curious instead of scared? What if questions came out of our mouths instead of ill-informed comments and snark? What if we made the effort to understand instead of judging and demanding assimilation to our own views?

I know it’s idealistic and naïve to even suggest but my inner cynic, who has the wheel most of the time, is sobbing in the foetal position and can’t come to the computer right now. Maybe if there was a little more understanding, the world wouldn’t be such a nightmarish, fear-riddled place. There might be a few less people looking over their shoulders. There might be a few less families crying. There might be a few more reasons to wake up happy on a Monday morning, instead of sad.


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