Last month, an Arab cab driver invited me to annihilate him.
Three million Chicagoans were scurrying around us under a dim-cloudy afternoon sky. I had just walked out of a conference for Christian artists, and I had White Anglo-Saxon Protestant written all over me. He was dressed in Muslim attire.
He looked into the rearview mirror and into my eyes. His invitation was a question. He asked me, “What do you believe?”
Perhaps I imagined the anger and fear intermingled in his eyes. But I’m pretty sure I wasn’t imagining the subtext: “What is your in-group? What kind of out-group am I to you? What kind of violence would you do to my people?”
GHOSTS AND VIOLENCE AND THE OUTGROUP
We do a tremendous amount of violence to others. But before we ever aggress against another, we always do violence to ourselves first—the violence of conditionality.
We are born into a world absolutely screaming with shame. The message of conditionality blares from a thousand megaphones:
You will be good enough…if.
You will be sufficient…when.
You will be loveable…maybe.
And we can’t hide from it and we can’t drown it out and the conditionality works its way into our hearts. We walk around with these ghosts of shame whispering their conditions into our souls. And we find ourselves helpless to quiet the whisper.
Until we discover the out-group.
Social psychologists define the out-group as a group of people excluded from or not belonging to the group with which we identify. We discover we can define who is with us and who is against us. And we realize we can compete with those we are against. And we realize that if we can win the competition—if we can reduce the other and define them out of worthiness—we can silence the ghosts inside.
For a time.
But then the ghosts come back even louder, clanking their chains of self-doubt and self-loathing, and we fall back on what worked before: competition and violence. And it escalates.
A SURPLUS OF OUT-GROUPS
No wonder the world is saturated with in-groups and out-groups.
By elementary school, we are absolutely swimming in them: boys versus girls, athletes versus nerds, affluent kids versus poor kids. Sometimes, a single child is turned into a one-kid-out-group and everyone gangs up on him and one soul is destroyed while everyone else quiets their shame. For a while.
By high school, the groups have official names—popular, jock, band-nerd, burn-out—and the competition can become lethal. Literally. People in out-groups are destroyed with words and fists and, eventually, by their own pain.
But all that nonsense ends at high school graduation, right? Wrong. In adulthood, out-groups multiply like Gremlins in water. Bears versus Packers. My honor roll kid versus your regular ole kid. Good neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods. Republican and Democrat. Native and immigrant. Gay and straight. Believer and atheist.
My town has 75 churches. Seventy-five separate religious in-groups and out-groups. In one relatively tiny suburb.
Where does all this end? Inevitably, it ends with one final in-group.
Me versus everybody else. You see, I think most of us live out our lives as members of an incredibly small in-group. The membership number often tops out at one. The entrance requirement is a conditional love and the facilities are quiet and lonely and riddled with competition and resentment.
A TAXICAB CONFESSION
He looked into my eyes and asked me, “What do you believe?”
I knew the script I was supposed to read—my chance to say the name of Jesus and lay it down like a dividing line, defining my group versus his. The name Jesus has been used violently—a name co-opted by shame-filled people seeking to quiet the ghosts once and for all—and he was baiting me into another round of verbal violence with his group of people. And, frankly, I’m so tired of division and violence—I had no interest in reading the script.
So, instead of saying the name Jesus, I said what I thought the Man-with-the-name might have said a couple of millennia ago. I said, “I believe I should be able to talk to you, no matter what else I believe. I believe we have more in common than we have in conflict. I believe we probably share many of the same fears and doubts and insecurities.” And I asked him, “Do you want to talk?”
A suspicious look stole across his eyes, and he asked, “What do you want to know?”
“Do you have kids?”
His eyes shimmered, and he grunted a confirmation. He dropped his eyes to the road, but after a moment they were back in the rearview.
And then he unraveled.
He told me he had three kids. He told me he was scared. He told me he felt the burden of guiding the next generation in an age of cartoon violence and pornographic advertising and financial uncertainty. He wondered if he was up to the task. He wondered if he would be able to look in the mirror years down the road and say to himself, “Job well done.”
As it turns out, the cab driver’s question was an invitation to annihilate the out-group, but not with violence. It was an invitation to annihilate it with joining. By joining him in the biggest in-group of all.
MEMBERSHIP HAS ITS PRIVILEGES
I have good news. Great news.
Humanity is the last in-group you will ever need to join.
And the membership application is simple. Because you already belong. All you have to do is embrace it. Decide you are going to end your attempts to fix your shame with competition and victory and dominance. Realize it doesn’t work. Decide you will silence the ghosts in another way.
Decide you will heal your shame by receiving the grace that is offered to you. Open yourself up to the kind of self-acceptance and loving embrace that changes everything. And I promise you, when you have done so, you will be absolutely bursting at the seams to give that grace to others. You will make your healing complete through a courageous vulnerability and a radical embrace of the other. Regardless of group, affiliation, or history.
And I have even better news. Once you’ve joined this massive in-group we call humanity, the membership benefits will begin flowing.
Loneliness will begin to fade into an overwhelming sense of belonging. The stranger will cease to be competition and will be an opportunity for connection. Feelings of affection and affiliation will rise up at the sight of the angry motorist and the putrid beggar and the sketchy street-walker. Anger and violence will give way to compassion. And as your shame evaporates—as you embrace your worthiness—your love will be like a hot sun, evaporating the shame of others.
When everyone belongs and our embrace is big enough for all of our human brothers and sisters, membership has its privileges, indeed.
Want to join? When you’re ready, the doors are always open.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.