The other day I was driving on an expressway. These days expressway driving seems a frantic enterprise. Near one of the exit ramps, one of the highway denizens, a behemoth "semi" had pulled over onto the berm. The driver had emerged and was gathering some wild plants along the side of the road.
In that moment another stereotype bit the dust. I know what truck drivers are like. They are strong, burly masters of profanity, rootless gypsies who have neither homes nor families. They care not a whit for sunsets, mountain peaks, seashores, or wildflowers. But now I have seen one take the time to stop and look carefully at the splendor by the roadside. I've been by that very spot numerous times. Not once did I take the time or trouble to stop and look at the miracles of leaf and flower. Goodbye, shattered image! I think I shall not miss you at all! You were, it should be said, quite convenient. You allowed me the luxury of not having to think of truck drivers as real people, as varied as the vast diversity of wildflowers.
Stereotypic thinking does not impart solidity or dimensionality to an object. Quite the opposite: It dispenses with the details and eliminates the idiosyncrasies of individuals by making them members of a class of things, all of which have identical characteristics. Well, all truck drivers do have a common characteristic -- they do drive trucks. That may exhaust the list of characteristics they share. There's one of them, at least, who notices what is growing beside the road. Quite a feat, actually, at seventy miles an hour.
As the number of people inhabiting our little globe grows, so, I suppose, will the temptation to group people into classes, apply labels to them, and mistake the label for the far more complex reality. Perhaps the image of the truck driver stopping to gather wildflowers by the side of the road can be a reminder of how perilous, how depersonalizing, how diminishing such stereotypes can be. I've had a number of stereotypes pasted on me. As I pause to think about them, I like my own name better than any one of them. I have a hunch that others like their names as well, far better than a label and far, far better than a number. The struggle to maintain a sense of importance for each of us may be long and often difficult. The challenge is quite extraordinary every ordinary day.