When I woke up, I was moved to write this article in an almost professorial manner intent on pontificating about the value and importance of cultures. But then a moment of conflict with a few friends before the sun crossed the horizon, followed by a chance encounter with a friendly stranger named Monte at Mugs Coffee shop across the street from Colorado State University, convinced me to take a different approach and discuss the issue of culture from the perspective of individuals instead of discussing culture from a macro perspective of communities and nations.
I write all the time of the need to disavow the endless pernicious labels that get in the way of our common humanity. But as I state in the video below, my stance against labels is not a rejection of the unique cultures we all come from. There is a wide chasm though between culture and label; whereas culture is based on the community around us, labels are an imposition of powerful peoples’ invective upon the powerless. So for example, as I hold near to my Ethiopian heritage, I dismiss out of hand the notion that I am black or that anyone is white. The former is a celebration of a culture, the latter is an attempt by some to erase culture—I discuss the insidious aspects of the words black and white in “We are not Black” article (link). These adjectives we keep calling ourselves get in the way of the noun that all of us are which is HUMAN.
But these discussions about culture and the endless ways we try to find an identity overlooks the most essential aspect of life. Before we form a community and celebrate cultures, we must first find ourselves within. Perhaps that is what is missing in the current paradigm of conflict and incendiary rhetoric on all sides. Everyone is convinced that their way is right and thus lash out at others; yet few among us look at the person in the mirror and asks the most simple of questions. Who am I? The hardest task in the world is to know thyself first, it is so much easier to preach outward instead of seeking knowledge within. To be honest, changing the world is easy compared to changing the very brokenness that exists internally.
If there is one thing that makes us all equal, as long as we are on this side of the ground, is that we are all broken. Pain is a connective tissue that binds the whole of humanity; from presidents to shanty residents, all of us struggle with past pain and present suffering that seem to endlessly gnaw at our spirits. Though we all cope differently, some choose to be creative and others destructive, at the core the inspiration to either be giving or to be selfish is found within the kernel of agony. If only brokenness could be mended the way broken bones heal—if only X input could lead to Y output. But emotional scars and spiritual injuries are not ameliorated through a step-by-step process; there is no manual nor a timeline associated with freeing our minds from demons.
It is because there is no apparent elixir to the maladies of the heart that we instead look outward. But if we paused and thought for a second, the vast majority of the time when we get pissed off at someone else, we are really projecting our anger from past suffering into present circumstances. I know this might be a hard pill to swallow because even I have a hard time accepting this nugget, but when it comes to every hurt that has been visited on our souls from the time we gained self-awareness, the wounds we internalize are actually self-inflicted. Now before I get accused of victim-blaming, let me clarify what I mean. Not too long ago, my need to always be giving led to me making an egregious decision. I let six guys live with me for free for almost a year thinking that I was doing my part to “help” them. In time, my altruism was paid back with malice; the minute my life crumbled, the very same guys who I helped were nowhere to be found and a couple even stole from me as they were exiting the very same shelter I provided.
Now I could choose to be bitter and to curse God for allowing this level of injustice. But in reality, I created that universe and allowed thieves to steal from me by letting thieves into my house. I can opt to be a curmudgeon and live a life of victimization residing in the neighborhood of resentment—seething that the two fiends I started a business with are currently partying it up in the same lounge I designed, funded and launched. But what will that get me exactly, especially when being an owner of a shisha lounge would have been my biggest regret and Oove lounge would have led to nothing but a life of vacuous partying and selling empty dreams by way of alcohol and debauchery. To be honest, I’m thankful for the past two years of hardship for it was in my journey that I found a purpose and discovered the true meaning of friendship.
But as I learn these facets about myself and learn to identify my brokenness, I realize more and more that self-awareness is but one part of a long journey towards healing from the past. For I am still trapped by my past even as I move incrementally towards freedom from old wounds. So this morning, when I was a few minutes late to the shuttle, I discovered just how much longer I have to go. The annoyance of a few caused by me being a few minutes late imbued a sense of an annoyance in my spirit. Annoyances and pettiness begetting more annoyance and pettiness, two fingers pointing at each other—convinced the other side was wrong. Until a friend calmly relayed to me why I was wrong and in the process led me to a tiny revelation of my own.
See, we are quick to condemn others because we view the world through our prism and our experiences. If I place importance on a principle, it’s because the lack or presence of that principle either hindered me or pushed me forward in my life. But others don’t have the same set of experiences as I do, so their guiding light might be different than mine. But we only know what we know, it is hard to place ourselves in the boots of someone else for the only steps we know are in the shoes that we stroll in. When we cry for a movie scene, in reality we are crying for ourselves because that particular movie scene gives voice to a hurt we carry in our souls. But we all cry for different movie scenes, if you cry for Bridget Jones Diary I might think it odd that you cry for a “chic flick” while I shed a river of tears for the Notebook. In this context, it would be asinine for me to tease you for crying over Renée Zellweger even as I cry over Rachel McAdams—come on now did you really think I was going to say Ryan Gosling?
See that last part I just wrote, I did that for a purpose. In the midst of soul searching it is best to find a silver lining and smile. Yes life can seem a muck at times as this world seems to be devolving into the pits of rancor and animus. But somehow, right in the midst of the ugliness, we have to find what is right in the world. Beyond that, we must also understand others instead of imposing our will and our views on them. The same fingers that point in time becomes fingers that pull triggers; judgment and bullets are both forms of violence that tear apart flesh and diminish lives. To be honest, words are even more hurtful than guns for in the tongue lies the power of life and death. Next time, before we lash out, just take a minute to inspect within and see what it is about ourselves that makes us want to emit enmity outward. Moreover, next time you get into a conflict, instead of entering into a cycle of rhetorical violence, just take a pause and see if you can change the paradigm by extruding grace instead of projecting hatred.
This is how we change the world after all, there is a reason that Mahatma Gandhi said “be the change you want to see in the world”. The change starts within, if we want to change the world, it has to start in reverse. First know yourself, then be kind to your neighbor, then build a community based on love and then let communal love infect the world. The same way that hatred metastasizes and feeds on the world, kindness can proliferate and nourish the planet. Instead of protesting and marching endlessly, each side blaming the other for the ills of the world, how about we reach across ideological, political, racial, religious and ethnic lines and make friends with endless strangers who are around you at this moment. Go ahead, do something audacious and just smile and say hello to someone next to you. Smiley faces on Facebook and retweets on Twitter are nothing compared to the smiles given in person and the treat of making new friends.
As for me, I leave the pains of my past behind and start a new life going forward. We don’t truly discover ourselves until we first go through the fires of hell. Parenthetically, this is why I used to cry when I watched the Notebook; it was in fact Ryan Gosling that induced tears because the way that Noah loved Allie is the way I wanted to love and be loved. But I was so intent on giving that I never knew how to receive. The brokenness within me only knew how to give so that I could fill the void of past pains. Leaving my once home Ethiopia and the suffering I saw my mother go through made me think I could save others since I could not return home nor save my mom. It is only after I too went through mind bending suffering that I finally realize now that I was only trying to save others because I did not know how to heal myself first. Think about that for a minute, maybe if all of us would heal ourselves first the world would heal through osmosis.
On my way to get coffee just now, I just smiled at a stranger and she smiled back. Instead of annoyances and pettiness begetting more annoyance and pettiness, how about we let smiles beget new friends and let that be the change we have been waiting for. But I can only do my part and let my words, fortified by actions, be the light I offer to the world instead of proffering politics and rhetoric. Hate cannot undo hate neither will anger lessen injustice; the only way we can have a modicum of serenity in life and in our world is to first heal ourselves and then let kindness mend the world. A big shout out to Colorado State University and Fort Collins, Colorado! Thank you for being my shelter and my high tower during my distress and living kindness as a lifestyle instead of a motto. Let Oove lounge in DC party on without me, I found love instead in the unlikeliest places and I’m finally learning to give without being motivated by fear.
Monte, the friendly stranger I just met at Mugs coffee shop this morning, shared with me a bit of wisdom over coffee. I told him about my Christian faith for a second and at some point we just started talking about faith as a whole. Sometime during the conversation, I shared with him how the word jihad had been hijacked by religious zealots and radicals. A servant at a hotel named Ahmed once told me that the true definition of jihad is the struggle within the heart between good and evil and has nothing to do with war or taking lives in the name of God. At which point Monte gave me an additional wisdom, he told me that most of the enemies that David was struggling with in Psalms were his internal demons. The world over fighting over beliefs as they try to impose their will on others, we would have peace on earth if we learned to heal within first and then connect to cultures by appreciating the individuals that reside in them. #CultureConnects
This is a celebration of a university that understands it, students that know it, and an environment that fosters it. Togetherness is essential but we must celebrate our cultures that makes us uniquely beautiful. Each nation valuable, each nation amazing, as we celebrate what makes us different we always cherish first what we all have in common.
CSU stand up and let America feel you, use social media to connect Fort Collins to endless cities and let the beauty of music unite us. Use #CultureConnects and take over social media with this link. Shout out to the African-American Student Union, the Asian-Pacific Student Union, and the Native-American Student union and a big shout out to Duan who gets it! Shout out as well to Tasha whose last is out of this world! 🙂 Smile, it will change the universe #message
Originally from Ethiopia with roots to Atse Tewodros II, Teodrose is a former community organizer whose writing was incorporated into Barack Obama's South Carolina primary victory speech in 2008. He pivoted away from politics and decided to stand for collective justice after experiencing the reality of the forgotten masses. His writing defies conventional wisdom and challenges readers to look outside the constraints of labels and ideologies that serve to splinter the people. Teodrose uses his pen to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak truth to power.
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