BUILDING BRIDGES: Seeing beyond our differences

When we see each other as people, we connect on some very important levels, writes Taslim Jaffer.

My book club just finished reading The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah.

If you are interested in Second World War stories, you will want to join the queue in the public library system to get your hands on a copy.

It is a story of two French sisters who fight the war in the best way they each know how; one joins the French resistance, while the other tries to not rock the boat with a Nazi soldier billeted in her home.

The chapters are heavy with themes of love and loss. The questions we are left to answer about ourselves, and who we would be when faced with the dehumanization of others cannot be unheard.

We six book-club members sat perched on our host’s living room sofas, articulating our horror and grief at the atrocities that occurred not too long ago, and that still happen to this day. We also expressed our amazement at the women who smuggled people and spied on the Nazis.

My book club is diverse. Other than the fact that we are all mothers, we range in age, occupation, racial background and parenting styles.

However, through our discussion, we found that what we do have in common is so very important. And not just what the six of us have in common with each other, but with people who existed before we did, in a land not all of us have visited, in an era we can’t fathom living through.

The conversation was emotional; it centred on our shared ache for humanity.

How could this happen to these women and men and children? To these people?

And therein lies the point of this column called ‘Building Bridges’. When we see each other as people, we connect on some very important levels. Like joy and pain and hardship. Like love and loss and hope.

Psychologist Arthur Aron developed a theory in the late-’90s, that four minutes of uninterrupted eye contact increases the level of intimacy between two people.

Amnesty International Poland recently applied this theory in an experiment where refugees from Syria and Somalia were paired with Europeans; each pair sat across from each other and were asked to look in each other’s eyes. The result was a tear-jerker video testimonial of how two complete strangers can truly connect when they look past the things that we might consider to be barriers.

When we actually look into the eyes of another person, we have no choice but to see… a person. We can break down barriers by looking – looking past what we think we know about that person, looking past what we have heard about that person, and looking directly into what it is like to actually be that person.

I think that what we find in other people is ourselves. We find struggles and gratitudes. We find families, hobbies, and dreams. We find there is a lot to connect over.

Staring for four minutes into a stranger’s eyes in an experimental setting could translate to saying ‘hi’ to someone you don’t know while you’re out and about.

It could mean reading a headline in the newspaper and thinking about the people in that story. What might they be experiencing? What might I do in that situation?

My faith in humanity remains high. Human beings have accomplished things we once thought impossible. We have demonstrated resilience even in the most demoralizing situations, and we, especially in Canada, are rightfully proud of our efforts to respect one another.

The lessons learned from the Second World War must continue to be remembered as we shape the world for the next generations.

Taslim Jaffer writes monthly on multicultural connections.

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