As I am walking on the beach, enjoying a beautiful sunset, I find a plastic bag. It happens quite often actually, so I pick it up and start using it to collect the cups, straws, food containers, and other trash I encounter on my walk. Before I know it my bag starts filling, and in my mind I start thinking: “These Venezuelans trash our whole beach.”
I continue my walk and keep on picking up. A mother with two teenagers starts helping me pick up cups and cans and they place them in my trash bag. I am so delighted. “What wonderful people!”, I say to myself. So I thank them, and ask them where they are from. And the answer …… Venezuela!!!
“O no,” I can hear myself say in my head… What was it that I was thinking just a minute ago about the Venezuelans? I thank them again and then thank God for giving me this lesson.
The Problem with Generalizing.
So maybe there are Venezuelans trashing our beach but I don’t actually know that. For now, I only know three Venezuelans that helped me pick up trash from others!! So why did I have that initial thought I wondered. Did I see Venezuelans trash our beach, did I see it on TV, or maybe someone told me? I actually have no real memory or proof that Venezuelans trash our beach. But my brain stored it somewhere and I judged all Venezuelans ( population 29 million – Wikipedia) and believed it.
The dictionary’s defines generalize as: “to apply a theory or rule to a larger group”. I was curious about what other words might be used to describe this, so I checked my Thesaurus. It says: Simplify!! Wow, isn’t that what we all want, to simplify our lives?
But what are we actually doing when we simplify and say things like:
“Teenagers are passive.”
“Politicians cannot be trusted.”
“People are ungrateful.”
It might be simplifying “to apply a theory or rule to a larger group” but, is it a good thing? I think it can create a lot of negativity. When I generalize, I am creating distance between myself and others.
Simplifying, it turns out, might not be such a good thing for us. You can see how my thoughts about Venezualans (all 39 million of them) are totally wrong. But what if the Venezualan woman and her daughter had not helped me pick up trash. I might still be stuck with my original generalization, which is pretty negative. Where our thoughts go, our actions follow. For example, I’m thinking “I don’t like Venenzualans because they trash our beach. So why should I help this one who wants directions to the local pub? I won’t help him.”
What can I do to stop generalizing and be more conscious about it? I made a list of my own generalizations. Next I looked for a person that this generalization would apply to and/or a person that does the opposite.
Let me give you an example.
My generalization: Teenagers are not interested in anyone but themselves.
Person(s) that fit this generalization: Marikka. she will comment on anything you say to her with “Whatever.”
Person(s) that don’t fit this generalization: Howie, he loves sports and volunteers at the baseball games. Clairita, she studies at the University and helps her parents every day.
What I discovered while making this list is that I could hardly find a person that fit my generalizations, but I did find many that were the opposite. I know many teenagers that are actively involved and interested in their community, politicians I can trust, and people that are grateful. Amazingly it was the same as the Venezuelan mother and teens cleaning the beach with me.
So if you would like to be more positive in your life, I invite you to do the same exercise. It can give you insights and awareness that help you see that life is much more brighter and much more positive than you thought.
If we question our generalizations, we probable can be more supportive of our teenagers. Maybe we will start listening again to what politicians have to say, and maybe more and more of us will clean up trash..….. on the beach and elsewhere in our lives. I am going to do my utmost not to generalize anymore. It makes me happy to think you are going to give it a try, too.
Without these generalizations YOUR world will look so much more beautiful!