No more looking the other way

A poetic quote has been making the rounds (not sure where it originated), relating to the pandemic: “We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat.”

I think that’s as big as the rest of life, too, in every corner of the world.

 

These words are not going to be enough. But I hope they help a little:

 

I want to tell you something about the world I grew up in.

We tried desperately to look the other way when bad things were happening that we didn’t want to be bothered with.

Racist, sexist, and homophobic statements and acts were all somehow justified, excused, or explained away. For some reason it was the victim’s fault. The victim “should have known better” or “was asking for it” or “should have made different choices” or “shouldn’t dress that way.”

Jokes and mockery at the expense of vulnerable, disadvantaged, and oppressed people were normal. Tacking on the phrase “We’ve got to lighten up a little” absolved us. We threw around hurtful words like “retarded,” called avoidable suffering “God’s judgment,” used the hell out of the phrase “Well maybe he should get a job.” And goodness knows my old world is on the front lines of making and sharing “Kung Flu” videos. “Okay, folks, lighten up!”

The only way we could stomach these selfish behaviors was by carefully turning a blind eye to the sad and violent realities behind the things we were making light of. “Kung flu” only stays “funny” if you ignore the real and sudden and very sad rise in harassment and assault of Asians who are being generically and vaguely blamed for the coronavirus.

If we admitted that in life and in its storms, some found themselves in tougher, scarier, less fair boats . . . then we might have to do something about it. And we couldn’t be bothered.

For example, I learned that racism was largely a thing of the past. That remaining inequities or disproportionate suffering in and harassment toward America’s Black population, by this point was sort of their own fault–holding onto the past, up to no good, “their culture.” We certainly never looked closely enough to see that Black (and Hispanic for that matter) Americans are stopped by the police at a much higher rate. If we had looked–had acknowledged that so, so many people in our society are still genuinely discriminated against just because of the color of their skin–from unequal pay and work opportunities to heavier prison sentences for the same crimes–if we had opened our eyes, we would have had to stand up for them. We would have had to acknowledge that maybe, yes, we should be helping. That accountability is an absolute necessity in the face of racism. That devoting economic resources to undoing the cycle of oppression is only fair. But then we would have had to stop making the jokes and loosened our grip on our disproportionate access to wealth, comfort, and ease.

Another example is how we judged victims of sexual assault, abuse, harassment, manipulation–pick anything. In almost every case where a female was used sexually, the responsibility and blame was placed on her. Or, if the blame couldn’t be placed on her, she at least had to share a good chunk of it. She probably wouldn’t have been assaulted if she had “dressed modestly.” She wouldn’t have been coerced and abused by her husband if she had “fulfilled her wifely duty” with enough frequency. It was on females to know that males were uncontrollably attracted to them, and to shield themselves. If we hadn’t so consciously looked the other way, we would have seen that 1 in 6 females in America are sexually assaulted. That 1 in 7 females are sexually abused before they even turn 18. And that 20% of sexual assaults on minors happen by age 8. Meaning that we live in a world where real, inexcusable, hateful sexual abuse happens, and it’s NOT because girls ask for it. We would have had to stand up and say, “Males, STOP. Stop assaulting, harassing, and abusing females. This is on the abuser, not the abused.” But then males would lose some of their excuses to use and manipulate females, lose their control, and their free passes. Be opened up to scrutiny. No . . . easier to just shake our heads and say “She asked for it.” (I know that this is not an issue that exactly follows these gender-lines, but in the world I grew up in, excusing male’s abuse of females was what was focused on.)

One last example was how we viewed and talked about and confronted poverty. Poverty was the responsibility of the poor. Their fault. Not our problem. We always began with the assumption that some character flaw led them into the poverty they were experiencing. I remember a hundred conversations about all the ways we couldn’t or shouldn’t help the poor. How giving money or food to “beggars” (as if that were the word that summed up their identity) would just enable and make worse their “laziness.” How we couldn’t make them diligent. How “sinful” attitudes and behavior, like a poor work ethic, led them into poverty. How state-run social programs were theft and would make poverty worse. A hundred conversations about how we can’t help and how it’s not our fault. I don’t remember conversations about how we could help. We didn’t have those . . . we couldn’t have those, or we’d have to do something. There was one way, I guess. Support for the poor was exclusively the responsibility of “the church,” and “the church” solved everything by teaching people to find their hope in an after-life where it wouldn’t matter that they lived a life of suffering and poverty (at least the churches I grew up in; I know there are other churches that do genuine work on behalf of economic support for those living in poverty). Every conversation about poverty was about how it’s “not our fault,” and “we can’t help,” and “they’ll have to fix it themselves.” We didn’t talk about systemic, cyclical patterns in society that unnecessarily push people into poverty and hold them there. If we explored those ideas, we’d have to do something uncomfortable. We’d have to acknowledge we had it easy and look for the inconvenient, messy ways to help. Easier to just live in blissful, intentional ignorance.

In sum–the world we grew up in was one of desperately trying to look the other way when bad things were happening that we couldn’t be bothered with. So we always, always, always started by looking for the reasons why the “problem” wasn’t real, the “oppression” wasn’t real.

I’m not the only one who grew up in a world like this. I would venture to say that we are all plenty familiar with a big chunk of America that sees “not-my-problem,” status-quo-justifying Non-Action as a value–a goal to aim for–an ideal to live by. There are social and political philosophies built on this. “They” are not our responsibility, not our problem. It’s on them to take responsibility and fix their own problems.

 

If this is the philosophical world you grew up in, I invite you to try 2 new things:

 

First, when you see hurt and suffering–don’t look away. Look really, really closely. Watch the sickeningly awful stuff.

As someone who grew up in a world that tries desperately to look away from bad things happening (as long as they don’t hurt us), I DO think there’s a solution–a way to effectively transition ourselves and each other out of this habit.

If you’re trying to bring awareness to somebody who grew up with the philosophy I did, honestly I don’t think arguments, statistics, or ridicule are the way to go. When looking-away was my go to, I still, in general, was a very loving and compassionate person. I had just had it trained into me to assume the “problem” wasn’t valid and that it wasn’t my place to help. So calling names won’t help. Every argument and statistic can and will be countered by someone who needs to believe there’s not a real problem to deal with.

I think that arguments and statistics and history and et cetera are all helpful, but only after someone is actually ready to listen. And emotion is generally what gets people ready to listen–as it should be. Because suffering, oppression, murder–those are emotional things. They are deeply sad and painful and angering things. We have emotions for a reason.

So if you’re raising awareness among people who have learned to look away, start by asking them to just look closely at the yuckiest stuff. To just look. To just watch. To see the videos and the pictures, to hear the really awful stories, to go look at the horror face-to-face wherever they can.

When I don’t ever have to see a homeless person–don’t ever have to talk to them, don’t ever listen to their stories, it’s much easier to live in a different world, as if the homelessness-problem doesn’t exist.

When I don’t ever have to see racial discrimination and oppression actually happening . . . when I get to quickly walk away from the headline instead of watching the sickening video of the 8 minutes and 46 seconds of George Floyd crying for help until he dies under the knee of a police officer who onlookers couldn’t stop . . . when I get to treat Ahmaud Arbery like a statistic instead of watching the stomach-turning reality of his murder that was then covered up for months . . . when I get to look away, never see or feel the emotional torment in suffering, I get to keep saying “not-my-problem.”

Seeing the shocking, brutal reality of hurt and suffering–confronting the emotions they bring–that is where minds start changing and people start looking and listening.

If you are the person who starts with this not-my-problem philosophy, I encourage you to LOOK–to LOOK CLOSELY when bad things happen. Go watch the videos and look at the pictures and read the stories. Let yourself get emotional about them. Imagine yourself or someone you love in those stories. Remember that you’re seeing real humans. If that homework seems to you like a bad idea, seems “unnecessary”–ask yourself why that is. Why do you so badly need to look away? What will change when you look?

 

Second, imagine being part of willing, compassionate solutions to suffering.

Try shifting your perspective for a minute from protecting your right to look away to asking what love and compassion could do to help.

You might find that there are lots and lots of real ways to help. You might find those ways through reaching out individually to suffering people, through volunteering and non-profit work, or through bringing awareness on a larger scale to the needs of suffering people. You might even find that there is a group of people who, motivated by compassion, not compulsion, have elected leaders who can help focus society-wide efforts on helping those in need and making this a safe world for every human. There are lots of people who don’t cling to their “right” to not be forced into solving suffering, and who start instead with “Okay, how CAN we help?”

You might find that we really can help make the world a better place, but only once we can give up our focus, for a moment, on protecting our own need to cling to every dollar, convenience, comfort, ease–“right”–that we have.

What would your role as a benefiting and contributing member of society look like if you switched your focus (at least sometimes) to how you can help, instead of focusing on the threat of being “forced” to help with something that “isn’t your responsibility”?

 

No more consciously or subconsciously denying that we’re not in the same boat. No more automatically denying the possibility of inequities, hate, bigotry. No more scrambling to justify, excuse, or explain away every racist, sexist, homophobic, violent, or greedy act. No more ignoring things that don’t fit our agenda. No more looking away from realities that make us uncomfortable.

I know that part of the discomfort is, “But if I DO acknowledge the massive problem, I have no idea how to help, and maybe I’ll get it wrong, and where do you even start???”

That is okay. Awkwardly, messily speaking up for your suffering fellow humans leads to change. It doesn’t matter if you get it a little wrong. The worst possible thing you can do is look away and let the suffering, abuse, and oppression continue.

We’re not going to get this perfect. But when we have the chance to do some good, to help the vulnerable, to fight injustice and protect our fellow humans . . .

We need to stop looking the other way.

We need to step in and help.

We need to take a stand for love and justice and the right of each human to not be degraded and used and oppressed.

No matter how messy.

William Wilberforce - looking the other way

See?!? I shouldn’t have . . .

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Hindsight is not always 20/20.

It’s hard not to judge our decisions and actions on a situation’s ultimate outcome.

We pick A instead of B, the situation goes terribly wrong, and we think “See? I shouldn’t have picked A. I should have picked B instead.” This hindsight feels simple. But it’s not. It’s fuzzy and confusing.

The world is a massive place teeming with a billion billion little forces. When your best laid plans go wrong (as they will), give yourself the space to remember: “The world is a massive place teeming with a billion billion little forces. Maybe this wasn’t all my fault.”

We have a tendency to judge our own decisions and the decisions of others (think significant other, friend, doctor, boss, teen-aged child, world leader–so many others)–to judge those decisions, after the fact, by what happened in the end. And then we draw powerful lessons. Lessons about what is “stupid” or “silly” or “unnecessary” or “not-worth-it” or “my fault.” Worse, we let others draw those lessons for us and, embarrassed, we quietly accept the lessons deep into our hearts.

A few examples might help . . .

You decide that you should speak up with your co-worker about something you don’t feel good about. Maybe something he’s doing that upsets you. Something that’s making your job harder. Maybe something you feel is unethical or unsafe. It’s such a tough decision for you to make–to speak up–because you hate confrontation, you don’t want to be mean, you’re worried about a putting a target on your back, you might be wrong, you don’t get the workplace politics game well enough. But you make up your mind. You speak up. And it goes terribly. Zero acceptance, zero awareness, zero accountability. By the end of it all, the one co-worker is out to get you and all your other co-workers have heard you’re a tool. . . . So did you make the wrong call?

Or maybe you’ve always been very socially anxious and don’t have a lot of friends. You grew up with too many relationships that went poorly. You never learned to trust that there was good in people. Despite all this, you finally get up the courage to make a friend. You try opening up a little bit. You put yourself out there. And it goes terribly wrong. Turns out he has zero interest in you, only in what he can get from you. He breaks your confidence and ends up shaming you for your personality and you’re left feeling more lonely and anxious than before you ever tried. . . . So would it have been better not to open up?

Or maybe you’ve been struggling for years over what you should do with a toxic family member. You need your own healthy boundaries and she always brings forward so much hurt and confusion for you. But “she’s family” and you do love her. Finally after some therapy and sleepless nights, you make the choice that you can’t have a healthy relationship with her and that you’ll both be happier if you let her go. Her birthday comes around later that year and, knowing how lonely she is, you feel deeply guilty and sad. You miss the idea of having a relationship with her and you feel deep sympathy for her sad experience of life. So much guilt. . . . So does that make the choice you made the wrong choice?

It’s easy to say yes to all these. To see something go “wrong” and immediately feel that your choice was clearly wrong. That it’s your fault. To say, “See? I shouldn’t have done that!” Shouldn’t have signed up for that race. Shouldn’t have reached out to that family member. Shouldn’t have stood up to the bullying. Shouldn’t have applied for that job. Shouldn’t have taken that medication. Shouldn’t have listened to that friend. Shouldn’t have auditioned for that choir. Shouldn’t have opened up to that person about being depressed.

But hindsight is not that simple. Choice-A being followed by Bad does not mean Choice-A caused Bad. And Choice-A leading to Bad does not mean Choice-B would have led to any better. A billion billion little forces. A hundred little choices. We do our best. Our instincts and our experience are helpful. We listen, we try, we leap. And sometimes, life also hurts.

When something “goes wrong,” please don’t jump to the conclusion that it means you never should have tried it. That you’ve made the wrong choices in life. That it obviously would have been better if you’d made the different choices.

And when someone says to you, “See, you shouldn’t have . . .”–please be careful about the shame and guilt you accept from them, and how you let their judgment change you.

Almost every time I’ve ever heard myself tell myself–or someone else tell me–“See, you shouldn’t have . . .” it’s been a very quick take, a very knee-jerk reaction, a very simplistic perspective. It’s been for the sake of putting out a spark, shifting the blame, self-preservation. Yes, sometimes we have to wrestle with whether we’ve made some bad choices or need to make some changes. But in my experience, most of the times we hear–from ourselves or others–that “See?!?” reaction . . . it’s not fair, it’s not realistic, and it’s not helpful.

Stick up for yourself a little. Keep that spark alive, the one you followed, even when you didn’t know how it would end up. Remember the billion billion forces, and make your little choices anyway, as best you can. And then, when life still hurts, let it be life.

Because very, very, very likely, yes you SHOULD have. And you should again tomorrow!

No shame, no embarrassment, no blame, no guilt. Live your life, no matter what they (or you) say when embarrassment sends them (or you) scrambling to explain life’s curveballs. You’re doing great. :)

P. S. After all, what if you just never bothered trying things you weren’t already certain about? . . .

If another human can…

I’d like to be a professional writer and public speaker who helps make the world a better place. BUT. I’m SCARED.

I’m scared that I don’t have what it takes. So I often find myself giving up. I hold myself back. Out of fear.

Do you ever find you’re not trying because you don’t want to fail? Turning your back on your dreams because you probably couldn’t bring them to life?

 

I often find myself wondering in amazement about grand things that other people have done: How the hell did they get somebody all the way up to the moon??? How does one person handle as much responsibility and stress as a country’s leader or a giant company’s CEO? How did my friend ever get so successful at sales? And what the hell even is the internet and how can it possibly work?!?

Sometimes other people seem superhuman. Sometimes the advancements and accomplishments that make up the world I live in seem like magic.

Who are these god-like people who shake the world? The inventors, the leaders, the athletes, and the entrepreneurs? What other-worldly stuff are they made of?

 

Turns out they’re just humans.

Like you and me. Made of the same stuff. They were born with the same senses and tools and brains as I was.

Sometimes I have to slap myself awake as I watch successful business-people who make hundreds of thousands a year. I so often find myself feeling small and weak and full of doubt. If only–if only I had what they had.

The other day I was having a heart to heart with someone way higher up than me on the ladder. She was describing to me how she sometimes struggles with communicating freely because she’s been burned so many times. Then it hit me–here’s this person in a position I tell myself I couldn’t handle yet or don’t deserve. And she has the exact same insecurities as me. But she’s made it that far and is doing great at it. Humanness and all.

Turns out I can do those things, too.

It stands to reason. We’re all humans. I’m fully capable of making the same decisions and speaking the same words as any CEO or world leader. We’re all human, with the same voices to persuade with and the same minds to decide with. I could be that executive that executive I hopelessly compare myself to when he walks by my desk. I have to stop telling myself that I can’t.

 

Yes, some start with an advantage. Some are born into healthy homes with supportive parents. Some get good educations and college degrees. Some are born into wealth. Some grow up surrounded by safety nets others don’t have, safety nets that help them take those big leaps.

But there are a lot of people who have started with huge disadvantages and still achieved their dreams against all odds.

One of my heroes as a baseball fan, Mariano Rivera, grew up in a poor Panama town using a cardboard milk carton as baseball glove and a tree branch as a bat. He accepted early on that he was born to catch sardines on a commercial fishing boat. Despite a deck stacked against him–poverty, discouragements, injuries, and broken dreams, he ended up achieving such wild success in baseball that he is now widely considered the greatest closing pitcher of all time.

And it’s never too late to start! Ray Kroc was a milkshake device salesman until he bought McDonald’s as a 52-year-old. Vera Wang didn’t start her designing career until she was 40. Colonel Sanders bounced from job to job until he finally founded KFC at age 62. And Harrison Ford was so disappointed in his weak attempts at becoming a Hollywood star that he became a carpenter instead to support his family–until he became Han Solo.

 

Point is–you’re no different. You’re a human. In general, you have the same abilities as the next person. The same potential. None of those massively successful people are super-human. You don’t have to be super-human. I don’t have to be super-human.

You can do it–just the way you are! You’re a person. If someone else can do person things, so can you.

 

I’ve experienced this time and time again in my own life. It’s encouraging to look back…

a1 - runningI took my little brother running one night that I’ll always remember. “I promise,” I told him, “if you just don’t stop, no matter how tired you feel, once we’ve made it about 2 miles you’ll feel so much better!” And it was true. A block in, he could hardly put one foot in front of the other. But he kept going and finally hit his stride. I have found that almost anyone can be a runner. And most of the people who “can’t” really can. They’ve just already given up.

a2 - guacamoleWhen I started my first job as a 19-year-old, I was absolutely terrified and clueless. I crawled into bed in tears night after night feeling like I was weird and awkward and would never fit in, never make it. But then I did. Before long I was getting promotion after promotion and found myself running my own store. And fixing up a mean batch of guacamole.

When we got engaged, Lyssi and I had this crazy dream–what if we went and got married in Italy? But we put the thought away. We’re not THOSE people! We can’t do that! Then one day we started trying–just for kicks. A few months later we were exchanging vows together at the Villa del Balbianello, living our dream. Turns out, we ARE those people!

a3 - wedding

Another big one that I think about a lot is the lifestyle my wife and I have embraced–full of exploring and adventuring, taking planes, trains, and automobiles everywhere we can to experience a world full of beauty together. I always hear people envying those people that have the time and the money to explore and travel all the time. Well I’ll let you in on a little secret. We don’t have more time and money to travel with than the next person. In fact, for a long, long time we dreamed and dreamed that one day we’d be able to go on those adventures–like “those” people. And then finally we decided to stop waiting and figure out how to make it work. Only then did we discover just how much we really could do. (If you want any adventuring tips, let me know. It’s something we’re passionate about!)

a4

(Fyi, each of the above pictures came from trips there were good adulty reasons not to take.)

 

So please–please, please, please–don’t tell yourself you can’t. Don’t tell yourself you’re “not that person.” Don’t give up before you’ve started.

 

Lately I find myself daydreaming about the next big thing I’m going to discover I can do. Maybe perform piano. Maybe take writing to the next level. I could go back and finish my degree. Pursue another big promotion. Or what the heck, maybe I’ll go back and try baseball again.

If there’s something you want, don’t be afraid. Go for it. Embrace it. Know that it could be you. Know that the people already doing it are just like you.

What’s next for you?

~

 

“All our dreams can come true–if we have the courage to pursue them.” – Walt Disney