“Social change is not for the faint of heart.” These words, uttered by my coach during a recent session, have been ringing in my ears over the last few weeks.
For advocates of social justice and equity, this work carries such great meaning, and also often feels like an endless tsunami crashing over our heads. I myself by turns experience anger, fear, pride, exhaustion, determination, and exaltation. There are moments when I feel a deep sense of connection and belonging. There are moments when I feel like an utter failure. Am I making any difference at all? Is my vision for empathy and harmony just supreme naiveté? Given the last few weeks, I have asked myself that question a lot.
This year has proven over and over again, in such an intense way, that our nation is in desperate need of healing dialogues around our diversity. Every headline that reports the latest instances of hate speech, destruction of property, or violence punches me in the gut. I cannot understand how people can publicly throw insults that demean other human beings, or express unabashed hatred against others because of who they are, or make threats of violence, or actually harm others and receive approval from their leaders for doing so. Even in such diverse regions of our country as New York and Washington, DC, hate crimes have risen in the days following our presidential election.
Ethnocentrism and bigotry are unacceptable, and I will fight until my dying day against hateful, small minded behaviors that cause psychological or physical harm to individuals simply because of where they were born, or their gender, or the color of their skin, or the God to whom they pray, or the people they love.
Yet I also must be cautious that I don’t fall into the trap of lumping anyone who doesn’t share my views as ethnocentric or sexist. I must stop myself from immediately judging and labeling people without trying to understand them and why they think the way they do. This can be a very bitter pill to swallow, and I admit that I struggle with my empathy when it comes to people who practice or support actions that I see as exclusive or biased. I have a hard time considering their experiences, their perspectives, their voices. I make knee-jerk assumptions about their values. I stop listening to understand and only listen to argue, to tell them they are wrong to feel the way they do. In so doing, I am engaging in the exact actions that I train others to regulate.
If I want to foster dialogue, and build institutions and communities that truly value the full diversity of our nation, then I have to suspend my own emotions and judgments about those who see the world differently than I do.
I truly believe the vast majority of us are compassionate humans, and we all want to be heard. We want our values and beliefs to be acknowledged. And we all have unconscious biases that, often unbeknownst to us, heavily impact our perceptions and actions. We want to feel a sense of security that our individual rights and needs are protected. When we feel that our way of life, our very core beliefs, are being threatened, most of us are going to react with fear, defensiveness, and anger. Our survivor brain kicks into high gear, triggering our “flight-or-fight” mechanism, and we’re no longer acting as rational human beings. We ALL fall victim to these triggers, whether we’re aware of them or not. They impact our ideas, beliefs, and decisions. When these limiting beliefs become our “truth,” it is hard for us to acknowledge any other. And that is a dangerous thing.
That said, my commitment to empathizing and suspending judgment does NOT mean I will sit by quietly when others engage in micro-aggressions. I will speak up, I will stand up to bullying and divisive language. I will do so with the intention of educating others and advocating for those who are being targeted.
That is the balance that many of us need to seek right now: being open and empathetic while actively fighting back against exclusionary behaviors. I can’t abandon hope and I can’t stop doing this work, as painful and frustrating as it is. I have to figure out how to be in this new space. I have to figure out how to walk with others, both those who think as I do and those who oppose my perspectives. I must reinforce my resolve to fight for a country where EVERY human is equally respected.
Call me naïve, call me touchy feely, roll your eyes at me…just don’t ever call me faint of heart.
[However you react to this post, I invite you to comment. I want this to be a conversation. I also respectfully ask that you write comments that contribute to a healthy and respectful dialogue.]