“I could hate slavery, but I didn’t know what to do with the slave right in front of me.” The Invention of Wings.
When working with clients, they often face some uncomfortable truths. Sometimes, they are being victimized by someone they love and they need to stand up for themselves. Other times, they are creating a problem and are coming to realize they need to change their own behavior.
Either way, they experience discomfort. Truth is often not easy.
At times, it is more difficult because the person is doing something they know is wrong, but they have convinced themselves they need to do it. A person may hate dishonesty yet keep secrets from their partner in order to spare his or her feelings. Someone may hate insulting speech yet they often utilize sarcastic cut-downs as an attempt at humor to defuse a tense situation.
Not only do they need to be confronted with what they are doing that is causing pain, they need to acknowledge that their actions do not line up with their beliefs.
This is prevalent in 12 Step groups, as well. Most addicts hate using substances. Yet they cannot stop. They do not enjoy lying to their families, stealing to pay for their drug of choice, or destroying their bodies. But the need for satiating their desire is greater than the need to change behavior.
Again: they experience discomfort. Truth is often not easy.
In The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd tells the tale of Sarah Grimke and Hetty “Handful” Grimke, set in early 19th century Charleston, SC. Sarah is given the slave, Handful, as a gift for her 11th birthday. From a young age, Sarah hates the institution of slavery. She hates that Handful has been given to her as property. Yet she cannot free her no matter how hard she tries.
Throughout her life, she tries to figure out the best ways to treat Handful. In a particularly poignant scene in the novel, Sarah is looking at Handful and says to herself, “I could hate slavery, but I didn’t know what to do with the slave right in front of me.”
That tremendously captures the human experience. Intellectual assent or opposition is easy. Practical application is hard.
I believe in the value of hard work. But what about people who are unable to work for a variety of reasons?
I believe it is necessary to abide by laws. But what do we do with those people who break the law? Or how do we monitor those who enforce the law?
I believe abortion is wrong. But how should we treat women who have already had abortions? Or how should we treat the children born to women who struggle to provide for their kids?
I believe war is wrong. But how should veterans and active service people be treated?
I believe in looking beyond our differences and sharing community. But how can we still respect and honor different ethnic backgrounds and experiences?
I know what I believe in and what I oppose. But what do I do with the person right in front of me?
I hate systemic racism.
I hate the denial that systemic racism exists.
I hate the reality of white privilege.
I hate the denial of that reality.
But what do I do with the people right in front of me—the people who I interact with daily that are suffering due to the unfairness and injustice in the systems and structures that are currently in place; as well as the people who think things really aren’t that bad and we all just need to get over it?
I know what I believe and I know what I hate; but what do I do with the person right in front of me?
I can speak up. I can speak out. I can build awareness. I can work for justice and equality.
But all of that must be done in relationship. I must remember that the person right in front of me is exactly that: a person. A beloved child of God. They have worth and value, whether they agree with me or not.
Because I have seen the effects of systemic racism and unchecked white privilege, I will continue advocating for people who have faced the unfairness inherent in the system.
Because I have relationships with people who have not seen the effects of unfairness, I will continue seeking ways to inform them. I will continue seeking ways to have conversations to explore some uncomfortable truths.
We live in a country that essentially idolizes freedom. Yet many do not want to acknowledge that freedom is limited for a large number of our population.
We must acknowledge that truth; no matter how much it hurts.
So how do we do this? By getting to know people. By listening to other people’s stories. By paying attention to what is going on in our communities.
In other words, we do this by building relationships. We build relationships through dialogue and experience. Over the course of 2015, I will be making one challenge per month. These challenges are intended to increase awareness and build relationship.
There is a lot of negativity today. And much of it actually does need to exist. We need to be made aware of how difficult life is for people who face systemic racism and oppression of many forms.
But we need practical measures to bring about lasting change. I know what I believe. I know what I hate.
But what do I do with the person right in front of me?
I will normally be posting the challenges on the first Saturday of the month, but I will post this month’s challenge here, as well:
During the month of January, invite one person into your home that has never been in your home before. Don’t meet them somewhere for coffee. Don’t choose someone who was in your last place several years ago. Choose someone you have never invited before and ask them to be a guest in your house. It can be for dinner, for dessert, for a game/movie night, or it can just be for a time to visit. But find someone you have not spent time with and invite them to be your guest.
Are you willing to try that?
Let us all look for ways to increase our awareness and grow our community by building relationships.