Q I have been having conversations with my 19-year old son about social equity and justice. At his college, he is learning about systems of oppression and inequity and how to support those who are less privileged. Although I am aware of the effects of colonialism and slavery, I essentially believe that success is determined by hard work and it is up to each individual to create opportunities. I would like to understand my son’s viewpoint more deeply so I can connect with him and, maybe, expand my worldview a bit.

A These are significant issues to discuss. It is important to remember that we are not separate from the large systems and conditions that have been around for centuries. Learning about them helps us greatly understand our economics, educational institutions, and class structures.

I believe that all of us have a range of privilege based on gender, age, class, race, color, religion, income, education, physical abilities, gender, and language abilities. We are a composite of these aspects that make up a unique blend of traits and abilities that serve us in some ways and hinder and challenge us in other ways, even if many of these criteria are outside our control. It can be a valuable exercise to list these dimensions and see whether they offer more or less opportunities in the society where we live and work. Most of us walk around blindly, not giving thought to how these different qualities impact us.

Along with these aspects we also have our personalities. Some people, even at a young age, are very driven to have jobs and make and save money. They learn about business and financial gain early on. Others are endowed with musical ability or an interest in literature or the arts. Some people are more fearful and intimidated by challenges and need support and resources, whereas others are more aggressive and courageous and even feel entitled to get what they deserve in life.

Family values and upbringing are also significant contributors to a person’s identity, cultivation of abilities or interests, and readiness to achieve goals. We are complex in these ways. If we turn to Hinduism and Buddhism, we find the principles of karma and dharma, where we inherit traits, merit, family situations, and challenges based on our previous lives and deeds. The teachings suggest that we are an accumulation of our past (karma) and are exactly where we need to be to learn and expand our understanding of ourselves and the nature of reality. The purpose of life (dharma) is to realize our essential goodness and develop our qualities and virtues for self and society.

Hindu and Buddhist traditions also speak about our profound interconnectedness to each other and all of nature; the notion of a separate self is false. From this perspective we are naturally led to think of others as part of us, considering their well-being as not separate from our well-being and that of the world at large.

Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist in the Bay Area. 650-325-8393. Visit www.wholenesstherapy.com

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