There have been distinct grumblings recently in the Midwestern suburban bubble that I live in. A new family moved in a few doors down from a friend of mine a few weeks ago, and as is customary in the land of the white picket fences, the neighbors were out in force to get a glimpse of the newcomers.
It transpires that the new arrivals are a single parent family with two elementary school-aged daughters and a 20-year-old son. The neighborhood spies reported that the son does not seem to be at college or otherwise gainfully employed. Instead, he spends most of his time in his garage tinkering with his car, but never driving it anywhere. As the stories trickled through the grapevine, it became clear to me that the son has learning disabilities and most probably has autism. His eccentric behavior, lack of social skills, and obsession with his car had already earned him the label of “the weird guy” on the street.
On a night out with several women from the neighborhood last week, the topic of the new residents came up. One woman was particularly upset by this young man’s behavior and alarmed at what dangers he might pose to her children. When I pointed out that it sounded like he had special needs, it was taken as evidence that he was a threat to society, and the conversation turned towards Elliot Rodger and school shootings, and the number of cases where people with special needs and/or mental health problems had committed horrific crimes. The tirade ended with her stating that she would rather not have these types of people living next door.
It would be easy for me to counter this tirade with an angry, frustrated, and indignant response. I could argue against the dominant, white, middle-class, and insular perspective that this woman represents in the hope of opening her eyes to a more diverse world. I could make judgments about her and ridicule the values that she holds dear in an effort to get my point across.
I didn’t. And I won’t.
Her “Not In My BackYard,” (NIMBY) attitude is shared by many people in this area. It’s partly why suburbs exist. It speaks to the perpetuation of segregation between the “haves” and “have-nots” in society, and the pretense that if the issues aren’t visible they don’t exist. Prior experiences of similar exchanges have taught me that responding in a judgmental, angry, and indignant way will merely fuel this separation.
So while my instinct is to rage, I find myself searching hard for some compassion in order to engage in a conversation that doesn’t involve a “right or wrong” response to the issue. Instead, I tell her that while I understand her fears, I also have a different perspective. I tell her about my work as a therapeutic riding instructor and the families with special needs kids that I serve. I tell her that I can only imagine how difficult life must be for a single parent juggling work, family, and therapies for a grown son. I wonder aloud about whether this family is new to the area and whether they are aware of what assistance might be available. I tell her of the bullying to which these individuals are often subjected. The conversation soon turned to a discussion on the importance of teaching children to be more tolerant of difference.
As existential therapists, we value the importance of empathy and compassion as a way towards phenomenological relating. Differences of opinion can provide depth to our encounters with another. Indeed, it is often through the discovery of these differences that we truly begin to see the other. NIMBY attitudes not only stem from a lack of compassion but also from a lack of awareness. Modeling compassion opens the door for others to feel into their own capacity for compassion and increases awareness of issues that might otherwise be ignored. Compassion allows us to present a different opinion without the drive to annihilate and/or shame the other. It allows me to take a breath and say, “I can understand why you might say that. I believe in something different,” offering a new perspective without the conversation escalating into conflict.
This is not to say that conflict needs to be avoided at all cost. I am not saying that there is no place for anger and indignation when faced with discrimination, only that in this context, I recognize that by attacking her values, I would be contributing to her evidence for the need to distance herself from the important discussions on diversity. Given that I chose to live in this neighborhood, I also need to take some responsibility for what happens in it. Through modeling a compassionate approach, I can campaign peacefully against the NIMBY mentality and bring more tolerance for diversity into my backyard.
— Veronica Lac
Today’s guest contributor, Veronica Lac, MA, LPC, is studying for her PhD in psychology (Existential, Humanistic, and Transpersonal specialization) at Saybrook University. She is a British Chinese Gestalt psychotherapist currently living in Columbus, OH, and working as an equine-assisted therapist with clients suffering from eating disorders.