This past Memorial Day I was at a men’s retreat in the Malibu mountains. It’s 320 gay men running around the forest, well, decorating it really. There are all kinds of arts and crafts events, inner emotional workshops, classes on how to get to know your inner child, and of course with 320 gay men, there has to be a talent show.

I’ve seen some amazing acts at this retreat. Everything from great comedians to a female impersonator who sang so well it brought down the house. But sometimes, it’s the simple reading of a piece of poetry that sticks with me the most. I’m always amazed how a few words are able to encompass a world of emotions or experiences, which can change one’s perspective permanently.

This year there was a poem read that began, “Fish don’t fear fire.” It was an eye opening experience for me. The poem was all about frames of reference, and how we all see the world through our own eyes and experience the world in only one angle.

Fish have no experience with fire. They don’t generally come in contact with it, even when they are served up on a plate, before that they have been slaughtered and gutted before being slipped into a butter and lemon sauce. Consequently, they have no capacity to fear it. They don’t know its beauty, nor its fearsomeness. They don’t know that it can save your life if you’re in the Sierra Nevadas some winter night, nor do they understand that it can make food more palatable.

There’s a lesson in that for all of us. Experience more and we can learn more.

Humans intuitively fear what they do not understand. It’s a survival skill that’s left over from the days of hunting and gathering. Back when we didn’t have microwaves and cell phones, earlier even than McDonald’s.

It’s a hardwired, survival instinct. It drives our personal, and social, life. It’s what creates cliques in high school, religions in cities and political parties at the national level. On a global level it is what drives the animosities between nations. Fear of the other, whatever the other is.

That hardwired instinct is what drives racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance and class warfare. Which is why, when we are faced with the reality of what the other is, and can see our commonalities, our connections and our equality, we can choose to grow beyond our initial reactions.

Fear is used by politicians to get the voters to rally behind a strong “nationalistic” platform. It is used to drive wedges between populations that have little in opposition and much in common, but to get the votes, a politician needs “an other” to fight against.

We’ve seen this in our politics, politicians rail against the evils of the homosexual agenda (which is what exactly? Because I never received my copy) to the horrors of allowing interracial marriage, and the coming destruction of our way of life by allowing people to smoke marijuana. My personal way of life has not been affected by the heterosexual marriage of my neighbors, the interracial dating of the other neighbor, or the frequently stoned guy down the street.

Well, that’s probably a lie. My life has probably been improved by all of them. My straight neighbors are lovely people. You’d hardly know they were heterosexual. They don’t fight, they laugh a lot, they’re wonderful hosts and she has a fabulous garden in the back. My black neighbor dated a white guy, who had a really cool Lotus that I got to sit in one day, that was fun. Stoner dude and I have had some great conversations on what his generation is up to and how they have a much more accepting attitude towards race, and sexual orientation than my own.

We grow up fearing what we don’t know. It is only when we are exposed to something that we begin to see the beauty, the strengths, and the weaknesses, in the “other.” It is by familiarity that the other loses its fearsomeness, and that we begin to respect the other. We don’t have to become the other, to respect it, for it will become part of us. When I see myself in the loving relationship of my neighbors I see how to be more loving, when I experience life without color barriers to love, I see more love, when I can talk to the straight stoner dude about dating, and we can empathize with each other, then I become more loving, less color aware, and more youthful.

When we change our frames of reference, we change ourselves, almost always for the better.

David Pisarra is a family law attorney focusing on father’s rights and men’s Issues in the Santa Monica firm of Pisarra & Grist. He can be reached at dpisarra@pisarra.com or (310) 664-9969.

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