Today is the Muslim holiday of Eid Al-Fitr, aka Korité, which celebrates the end of Ramadan. It’s a big deal here in Senegal, where people are gathering with their families and loved ones to feast, pray, and celebrate the end of a month of fasting.
Being surrounded by people with such different beliefs and practices from my own got me thinking about acceptance, and how much it is lacking in the world where, ironically, so many people follow religions that teach these principles: “Love thy neighbor,” “Do no harm,” peace, tolerance, charity…
So many major problems exist as a result of a lack of acceptance, and it’s important to think about where that lack of acceptance comes from.
From the moment we’re born, it can be said that a large part of our belief structure is predetermined. We grow up watching and listening to the people around us, absorbing it all like a sponge because that’s how we learn to talk, walk, eat, and all other basic skills. Using myself as an example, since I was born in the US to parents who spoke English, it was predetermined that was the language I’d first learn to speak. It would also be the only language I’d know until I learned that others exist. So you could say that up until some point, I believed that English was the language.
In addition to basic skills, though, we also absorb more complex beliefs from the people we grew up around or who raised us. We’re taught what is right and what is wrong, as well as what happens when you do something right or wrong. As another example, I was raised Catholic, so at a young age I was taught that if I sinned, I had to “do penance to sin no more.” I remember once confessing to the Priest that I forgot to feed my cat. To receive forgiveness, I had to say a certain number of Our Father and Hail Mary prayers.
Disclaimer: I’m not condemning religion in any way.
Since I was raised to believe in a certain religion, just like I was raised to speak English, I would get confused when realizing that other religions exist, just like other languages. I would probably become defensive of my own religion, since it’s what my loved ones taught me and all I’ve known. Imagine growing up in a belief system that was always confirmed by the people you trust most, taking part in familiar customs and traditions aligning with this belief system, and then coming across people who not only believe something entirely different, but who condemn your own beliefs. Imagine then learning that wars were fought between followers of their religion and yours. Imagine experiencing the wars first-hand and imagine the hostility that would create inside of you towards that religion and anyone following that religion.
And then imagine someone coming along and telling you to accept that religion and those people.
Acceptance is hard because it’s scary. It’s scary because it goes against everything we’ve been taught from the day we were born. When we choose to accept a religion and its followers, who have historically condemned our own, it feels like we’re being disloyal to the people we love most who taught us everything we know and to the traditions and customs we have come to love and even to the God we should be putting above all else.
But choosing to accept another religion doesn’t mean betraying your own. Many religions even preach the importance of acceptance. (e.g. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”). Diversity is what makes the world beautiful, so why resist diversity by rejecting anyone who is different from you? Not only is this an impossible task, but it is exhausting and you would be primarily hurting yourself. Think about all the diversity on the planet—everything in nature is where it is today because it was different, not all the same. Imagine if all birds, flowers, and trees looked the exact same—same colors, sizes, shapes. We’d be living in a world like in The Giver, where there is no color and life is bland and everything is uniform.
Thankfully, our world is different. We might have pain, fear, and suffering, but we also have passion, joy, pleasure, awe, and love. Think about all of your closest friends and loved ones. Do you love them because they are the exact same as you and have the same opinions, passions, and beliefs? Or do you love them for their differences, because they get you to interact with and see the world in a different way?
If there is going to be acceptance in the world, it has to start at the level of individuals, because individuals are what make up groups that lead to group beliefs that have a bigger impact on the world and on other people. Personally, when I meet someone new, I try to see them as an individual, no matter what kind of group they may be a part of (Democrat? Republican? White skin? Black skin? Athiest? Muslim? Etc.). More often than not, it’s the person’s personality that matters, and whatever groups they identify with have no impact on our relationship. If anything, their differences just enrich our friendship because we learn things from each other that expand our perspectives.
Living in a 92% Muslim country has taught me so much about Islam that I wouldn’t have known had I never made an effort to meet and talk with new people who practice it. Now it’s completely normal to me when I hear the call to prayer at 5:30am or see them praying 6 times a day or fasting during Ramadan. It would be easy for an outsider to judge these practices, just like it’s easy for people to judge others based on their skin color or accent or gender. Judging is easy and acceptance takes work because it often means going beyond what you know to gain a new perspective and challenge your own, which can be uncomfortable.
No matter what you believe about how we got here or what is the point or where we are going, know that we all have a finite amount of time here on Earth, and we can choose to spend it however we wish. Do we want to spend it hiding inside a bubble filled with fear, rejecting anything or anyone who threatens what we think is the truth? Or do we want to push past what we’ve been taught, interact with our fellow humans as if they all have lessons to share, and grow to our greatest capacity so that when we’re on our deathbeds, we can look back with satisfaction and pride at all the wisdom, relationships, love, and life we’ve gained as a result?