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When the Enemy is Me

by Tom Lane

June 9,2010

“No way.” “You’ve got to be kidding me!” “Really?”

These were among my thoughts when I came home from work one day about a year ago to find my new neighbor sitting on the porch smoking cigarettes. You see, we live in a small area with shared front stairs and my porch is right across from his. Eight feet, six inches – downwind, to be exact.

Let's be clear – my reaction was not one of concern for his health and well being. Not in the least. It was because I hate smoke. I mean I really hate smoke. I can smell a freshly-lighted match from one hundred yards away and can shoot a dirty look before a smoker can even take the first inhale.

I live on a very friendly street that attracts great people, and I was looking forward to having a new neighbor and possibly a new friend. Then I smelled that smell and knew instantly that I would not like him because he was one of them – a smoker.

So while I was always pleasant to his face – said hello, chatted if we ran into each other, patted his dog, and so on – it was all an act. Deep down I knew what he was like – what all smokers were like – and that I would treat him the way people who pollute the world (especially my world) ought to be treated: with silent contempt.

Then some strange and unexplained events started to occur. My garbage cans were often taken out to the curb and back when I was not home (or too lazy to do it that week), my recycling bin was returned to its rightful place, and my newspaper was taken inside and placed next to my front door. The reason these and other events like them seemed so unexplainable was that the only explanation I could find was that he was the one responsible. I experienced a wicked case of cognitive dissonance because I knew people like him did not do things like these, and I was not ready yet to give up my attachment to that point of view.

Over time, with consistent niceness and kind actions on his part, I slowly got to know him. Turns out he is a great guy with lots of great qualities. He even donated to a non-profit I like. But what was even more surprising was that the more that I got to know and like him, the more that I got to know myself – what I saw in myself that I did not really like.

As I thought more about it, I realized that I displayed this tendency quite often. When I disagreed with people politically, when I saw people driving certain cars, wearing certain clothes, or having tattoos or piercings. I noticed that I made up a story about the person and it usually was not particularly flattering. In these stories I perceived that my viewpoint was always right, and that they and their viewpoints were always wrong.

As I looked deeper inside and became more aware, I came to the conclusion that there are people who pollute the world with mental garbage – not just physical. When my actions are guided by my own prejudices and I ignore evidence suggesting I may be in the wrong, I am guilty of being one of them. As Pogo said famously, “I have seen the enemy and it is me.”

My neighbor and I now have a nice, warm, neighborly relationship – thanks to him. How many other opportunities have I missed by jumping to conclusions? How much more rich would my life be if I could drop this and other types of prejudices? How much better would the world be?

The commitment I made from this life lesson is to pause more before acting, especially when experiencing a visceral emotional response. Inside that pause I can then ask questions like “To what am I really reacting?”, “What is my viewpoint, and why am I so attached to it?”, and, “What could be possible if I would let it go?” This action is not always easy, and I fail at it regularly.

However, I am beginning to reap the rewards and am seeing new, formerly hidden possibilities. In the end, I'd like to thank my neighbor for lighting up – excuse me, illuminating – these aspects of my perception. I hope that eventually we can all learn to see through the smoke of our own judgment.

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