I've now been traveling for 6 weeks across the northwestern United States. I expected some bit of learning curve, however, I was not fully prepared for all the adventures that we have encountered. Some have been fun and inspiring, others have been hard and trying. Either way, I can certainly say that I am pushing my edges of knowledge and comfort every day and that is indeed what I signed up for!
I recently found myself reflecting on the people we have met during these travels. So many folks have been open to sharing their experiences with us, aiding us when we needed a hand and inviting us to reach out to them if we needed guidance or help. I have been happily surprised by the generosity we have encountered by complete strangers. It struck me that we have encountered this generosity in many people we never would have connected within our daily lives. Yet, while on the road, we found some shared element of life with these local residents. For example, we had a complete stranger share a special, secret camping spot in the Columbia River Valley, just because we are traveling in the same vehicle he spends his weekends adventuring in.
Another person, invited us to his beautiful "off the map" kayaking spot in Montana, as we rode in his tow truck cab, on the way to (sadly) get some needed repairs attended to on our vehicle. He loved that we were impressed with the local beauty and wanted us to get off the beaten path to see more of his hometown. A (semi) retired military couple from Arkansas became fast friends as we talked about our love of traveling. I know little about military life or Arkansas but we had no shortage of things to chat about. We have met people from all walks of life, all corners of the country who are open to helping and sharing key information and experiences with us. We have done the best to do the same sharing, in kind.
What stands out about this experience is that so many of these people have different beliefs, backgrounds, political leanings, careers and lifestyles that wouldn't have brought us together in my pre-travel daily routine. We would never have shared a social or work environment. In a time where we hear so much about what divides us in our country and communities, it has been a treat to see how we can sometimes step over those divisions when we have what seems to be very small shared interests- yet it unites us without needing to talk about what typically divides us. A common theme to this phenomenon has included an appreciation of nature and that is even more heartwarming to me.
Our brains are hardwired to make quick decisions about our environment - even create bias and prejudice as a way to be more efficient. This is a normal function for our brains and we are rarely aware of it on a daily basis. The term for this is "Implicit Bias". Judgments and assumptions are often a way for our brain to quickly categorize "threats" from "non-threats", based on our past experience and knowledge. This facet of the brain allows us to move through the day more quickly without needing to newly assess every person or situation we encounter. However, these judgments and assumptions can be dangerous and cut off our ability to connect or learn from those who are different than we are.
Implicit bias encourages us to stay in a place of poor communication and acting on negative stereotyping. It is completely possible for us to slow down our thoughts and (if we choose) consciously reevaluate the "efficiencies" our brains have developed in an effort to possibly act less through assumptions and more through what we choose to understand about the current situation. Interested in learning more about your own hidden biases? This online assessment is part of a larger study on what blind spots people carry in their assessments of the world.
Traveling has been a great reminder for me to see people as individuals, not as the labels we wear or are given by our communities, news feeds and societies. Not only does it open us up to experiences that we may not normally have, but it allows us to simply relax and enjoy the moment when we spontaneously connect, even if its just briefly, with someone that can understand our interests and passions.
Going forward, I am challenging myself to notice any assumptions and biases I maybe have about the people I meet. I want to put these preprogrammed assumptions aside, even if it's just for a moment, to see if I can find that one shared topic that allows us to be relaxed together, ignoring any barriers that would normally cause tension. It is arguably now more important than ever to take the same challenge yourself to see what you can learn about the people you encounter throughout the day. There is so much we can all learn when our brains are not on autopilot. I hope you accept the challenge and enjoy what you discover!
How will you work to overcome your biases? I'd love to hear your strategies below. (: