Presented at Thomas Jefferson Unitarian Church
Feb 23, 2020
From Gloria Anzaldua
“…when you empathize and try to see her circumstances from her perspective, you achieve un conocimiento that allows you to shift towards a less defensive, more inclusive identity. When you relate to others not as parts, problems or useful commodities but from a connectionist view, compassion triggers transformation. This shift occurs when you give up investment in your point of view and recognize the real situation free of projections – not filtered through your habitual defensive preoccupations. Moving back and forth from the situation to la naguala’s view, you glean a new description of the world (reality). When you’re in the place between worldviews (nepantla), you’re able to slip between realities to a more neutral perception. A decision made in the in-between place becomes a turning point, initiating psychological and spiritual transformations, making other kinds of experiences possible.”
Today’s sermon is based on a chapter in my next book “Where Courage and Compassion Resides.” Those of you who have been members for a while will remember that this is a line that our previous minister, Rev Elwood Sturtevant shared in every service. I’ve been playing with this statement and what it means for some time. This sermon is a part of what I’ve come up with.
Living authentically and in ways that promote justice is challenging, and rife with opportunities to make mistakes or do it poorly. Our ideas of what it means to “really” live authentically and effectively allying for justice are generally far out of reach for mere human beings. In many ways, we’re set up to trip over ourSelves in these efforts. As such, a part of “walking the talk” requires both humility and resilience.
Sometimes as we walk the talk, we trip. We trip over our own expectations or intentions, we trip over our privilege and entitlement, we trip because we’re unsure what we’re doing and because this is unchartered territory (for which we rarely have a map). We trip because we’re humans and sometimes tripping is just what humans do.
Walking the talk requires skills. Sometimes skills that we haven’t been supported to develop or practice. Few of us were excellent the first time we tried to shoot a basket or weave a scarf. Most of us struggle as we learned to walk or ride a bike. Nearly all of us require time, support, patience, resilience and a fair amount of humility as we practice any new skill. In the process of developing these skills, most of us fell – a lot. We’re exercising new muscles and often learning to “walk” in different ways. Walking with authenticity and accountability is a different way of walking than most of us have much experience in doing; and many of us have been systematically trained to not do.
Not only does walking the talk involve practicing new ways of walking, but it also often involves walking in new landscapes. Living more authentically and being more active in justice activism both pull us into unchartered territory. There is some discomfort, anxiety, hesitation, and fear for most of us when we walk in places where we haven’t been before or don’t often visit. There are risks to being and living as more authentically and there are risks for being more active in working for justice. All of this combines to make it even more challenging to “walk the talk” — challenges that increase the likelihood that we will trip. Yet in general, we don’t tend to focus on preparing ourSelves, nor in supporting each other, for this walking. We aren’t prepared for the likelihood of tripping.
It’s like hiking in the woods. Most of us know we’re more likely to trip when walking in the woods (especially if these are unfamiliar woods) than when walking down a well-worn path or along a sidewalk. We tend to pay a different kind of attention when walking in the woods. We prepare ourSelves differently and tend to be differently supportive of friends when hiking in the woods than when walking down a city sidewalk. We walk in the woods with some pre-prepared willingness to trip – at least some willingness to the possibility of tripping. Not only are we paying a different kind of attention when we’re walking in unchartered territory, but we often also have a different level of acceptance when we do trip.
The Experience of Tripping
As I walk the talk, I often trip. Either because I’m clumsy, because I’m not paying close enough attention, because of my privilege, or any of a host of other reasons, I trip. More often than not, I trip in ways that I land smack down on the very people I am trying to be kind to, or ally with.
Now, one of the key lessons I learned in being a man (which is closely tied to how I learned to be white) is how to act when I trip — especially if I fall and hurt myself: that is, to deny that I tripped and minimize any effect of having tripped. Yall know what I’m talking about – I trip, fall-down, and immediately jump up with a “I’m good.” There are limited models for many of us – but particularly white men — about how to trip and fall, accept and acknowledge that we tripped and fell, and move on with accountability. The primary model we have is, once tripped, to make sure that any harm or damage is minimized/denied and moving on as quickly as possible. Just look at the model the men who have been called to attend for their harassment and abuse have provided.
When I trip, it generally doesn’t only impact on me – far too often, I trip and hurt others. When I hurt other folks, I don’t get to evade my responsibility and accountability towards them just because my hurting them was an accident, or because I “didn’t’ mean to.” Intention does matter…and it doesn’t. There is a difference between hurting someone intentionally and hurting them accidentally; and we are still responsible and accountable when we hurt people.
Several years ago, I facilitated a leadership development initiative with a group with young men in collaboration with a local YMCA. These adolescent men, all black or brown, had been referred to this program due to their difficulties in school – both academic and behavioral. They were defined as “at risk” (a term I outright reject. All youth are “at risk” for something. What’s more honest is referring to these youth as “at potential” because their experiences and life situations put them at potential for a different kind of greatness).
The initiative had them define a problem in their community and a plan for what they could do about it. They chose to address domestic violence by generating donations from teens to collect items specifically for the adolescent children of the women being served by the DV shelter, and then to deliver what they collected on Mother’s day.
These young “at risk” men went to their three high school principals to ask for permission to do this donation drive. Each and every principal (all white males) said no – expressing their disrespect for and distrust of these young men.
I and my other adult colleague, doing our best thinking, had considered this is as a part of their leadership development. Rather than relying on us to “legitimize” their ask, we thought that it would be a more meaningful experience for them to approach their principals on their own to make their pitch. It never occurred to me that the principals would say no.
It should have!
I know how racism, adult privilege and the school-to-prison pipeline operate. I get it. I absolutely should have foreseen at least the possibility of these principals doing exactly what they did. I have should have done everything in my power to set these young men up to succeed, rather than setting them up to fail (even if my set-up was by “accident”). I was walking the talk and tripped – and fell with my full weight down right on top of these adolescent black and brown men.
After doing some immediate crisis control (circling back with the director of the Y and these principals to get them to agree to what the young men had asked to do), my heart-felt intent was to slink away. I had a lot of justifications and excuses ready, but the bottom line is that I did not want to face these young men. And I certainly didn’t want to face them being fully responsible and accountable.
My 2nd heart-felt desire was join with them in terms of how unfair the principals were. But this too would have been a way for me to shirk my responsible and slink into a closet of shame and privilege.
That place were courage and compassion resides called me to a different response – a response of responsibility and accountability. Compassion called me to go back into the room to support these young men; and courage held me to fully own my responsibility! And so I went back into that room and invited them to express their anger, hurt, frustration, disappointment to and at me. I knew that we couldn’t effectively move forward with our project until they were able to express how they felt, and until I was able to make amends to them.
It took a while for them to trust that I was actually going to sit there and listen. It took them a while to identify and own their anger towards me. It took several weeks of us talking it through — weeks during which they found and expressed their anger, hurt, resentment, disappointment… to and at me (expressed in ways that adolescent men who have been defined as “at risk” express their anger).
Now admittedly, a lot of the anger, pain, rage, humiliation and frustration that they expressed to me was probably not mine to take. But this was not the point. The point was for them to experience a moment of being able to express their anger at white men in a way that was acknowledged and held (in all the messiness that this entailed); and for them to experience a white man making amends to them (in all my awkwardness and messiness). As awkward and messy and imperfect as it was, how often do adolescent “at risk” black and brown men get to stand face-to-face with an older, privileged white man and let him “have it?” – without him shying away, making excuses, minimizing or justifying what happened “because he had good intentions.” How powerful and meaningful do you imagine it was for them to experience this?
Which isn’t to suggest that I didn’t frequently experience the desire to shy away, make excuses, justify and minimize. There were times that I wanted to “clarify” that their anger at any given moment was “rightfully” anger at the principals, or the police, or the judge or the system and shouldn’t be directed at me; moments that I felt “victimized” by the ways they were expressing their hurt and disappointment; and that I felt some fear when things got really honest.
Walking back into that room week after week was humiliating. Being (or trying to be) openly, honestly and directly accountable to these young men was humiliating. Driving back week after week, knowing full well what was going to happen was humiliating. And it was another layer of humiliating knowing that I was the one responsible for holding this space open, to continue to encourage and support these young men to find and express the depths of their disappointment, hurt and anger at me.
Being accountable is inherently humiliating. It’s humiliating to own our flaws and short-comings. It’s humiliating to acknowledge when we have failed others. It’s humiliating to acknowledge when we haven’t lived up to our own standards. It’s humiliating to stand face-to-face with someone we have harmed and take full responsibility for the harm.
I can’t speak to their experiences, but I can speak to mine. At the same time that I experienced the humiliation of taking responsibility for my actions, I also had the awe-inspiring opportunity to bear witness as these men found and expressed the courage and compassion for themselves, with each other, and towards me in the midst of finding the words to say just how disappointed, frustrated, and hurt they had been by my action. Watching as they found their voices (individually and collectively) to honestly and directly hold me to account. I can’t imagine the courage it took for them to say to me, an old, privileged white guy, just how deeply I hurt them.
I can’t imagine it, but I did witness it!
Humiliation as a Doorway to Walking with more Humility
Tripping is humiliating. Humiliation is related to shame – and our reaction to humiliation is likewise closely related — a desire and a tendency to deny, minimize, and avoid. When I trip I usually feel some shame for tripping – I should have seen that branch, or tied my shoes, or been aware of that expression of privilege. I should have been more careful, more mindful, more attentive…
We also tend to want to avoid facing the consequences of having tripped and taking responsibility for the mistakes I made and the mess that resulted.
Those of us who are white, and/or male, and/or adult, and/or in long-term heterosexual relationships…also have the benefit of systems and infrastructures that support us to avoid responsibility for the messes we make when we trip.
Part of living more authentically and effectively allying is practicing humility. How can we use experiences of humiliation as pathways into humility, rather than as an invitation to withdraw into closets of shame and privilege? The short answer is to rely on that place where courage and compassion resides. The longer answer is to develop a practice of accountability and amends-making; creating communities of courage and compassion where we are supported to be accountable; and take the power and fear away from humiliation.
I must acknowledge that as a whiteman who sits at the intersections of multiple privileges, I have a different opportunity to reflect on my experiences of humiliation as opportunities to walk with greater humility. White supremacy and patriarchy create dynamics that don’t require that I walk with humility on a daily basis. I’ve been supported through customs, norms and structural privilege, to live my life from a place of arrogance.
I have found that instead of reacting to every experience of humiliation/begin humbled as if I was being victimized, and examining these experiences as possibly an opportunity to step into greater humility that I can find these experiences more useful for me and my continued growth.
I no longer fear being humiliated. Humiliation is often a reminder that I have allowed mySelf to become the center of the story. Part of being white in a racist environment, and a man in a sexist world, is that we are and are entitled to be center of every story (this is part of the institutional arrogance that is a part of systemic racism, sexism and other oppressive dynamics). When I feel the need to argue that “not all white folks are racist” or “not all men are bad”; when I feel the urge to post what a great ally I am… all of these are examples of ways that I try to center me in the story of racism or sexism.
It is particularly seductive to think of mySelf as the center of my own stories. There is a very short line between this kind of Self-centeredness and Self-servingness. When I center my life, my activism, my work on me and my role and my efforts, then my thinking and actions start being about serving my own sense of who I am and what I’m doing; rather than about the greater good, the justice that I claim to be seeking.
But I’m not here to serve me.
Let me say that again I am not here to serve me!
I am here to serve you, my family, my child, his school, this congregation, my communities, this world, but I am not here to serve me!
There is a part of me, however that wants me to serve me. There is a part of me that likes being the center of attention and who argues ferociously that I should be the center of my own stories! Being humiliated is often a reminder that I have become self-centered/self-serving again. Humiliation reminds me to get out of the way. Walking the talk with humility is about walking the talk by de-centering mySelf and re-centering the lives and experiences of others. I need to be reminded of this.
Creating Brave Space
This leads me to a question for us — how we can better create “brave space” that allows us to more openly acknowledge when we trip and fall? I refer to this as “brave space” rather than safe space because it does not always feel safe to fully acknowledge our humiliation, to fully accept the degree to which we’ve tripped. Further, “safe space” is a matter of position and context — and often a matter of privilege. There are some people who never have “safe space” (black trans women, for example). I’m not talking about creating spaces where we feel “safe.” But rather, spaces where we can feel brave. We need opportunities to step into and practice our courage, which doesn’t mean that we don’t feel fear or face risks, but that we step into the space in spite of feeling the fear/facing a risk.
What this looks like for me is this — as I walk the talk in being in “right relationship” with you, in being a friend, in being an active member of this congregation, in being in partnership with Amy or a parent with Kiernan, of acting as an ally for racial or gender justice…As I walk any of these talks, I guaran-damn-tee that I’m going to trip. What I need from you in terms of creating brave space is not to notice that I trip and simply notice — “yup Rus tripped again.” Nor do I need you to make it artificially okay that I tripped “oh, it’s okay, you didn’t mean to”, “oh that’s alright…”
What I find most useful in helping me to be brave is for you to make it okay for me to not be okay. Sometimes tripping and falling is not okay. Sometimes when we fall and hurt other people it’s not okay. Creating brave space means acknowledging that yes I did make a mess of things – again. I am capable of being accountable and making amends – but that requires that I fully acknowledge and own the harm that I’ve caused. Brave space is space where I am allowed, encouraged and supported to wholly own the harm that I’ve done. Brave space is spaces of courage and compassion that allows us to access our resilience and humility after having fallen short of my ideals and/or our values.
Brave space is space where it’s okay to not be okay.
James Baldwin was fond of saying “your next most radical step is your next one.” Taking the steps we aim to take as we strive towards being more authentic, and more just, requires one radical step at a time – with the full knowledge and acknowledgement that we’re likely to trip (if you, like me, tend towards clumsy, then you should probably plan to trip more often than this). But tripping doesn’t have to be a sign of failure or a symptom of what’s wrong with us. Tripping can be an opportunity to practice our resilience, to grow in our humility, and to continue to expand the brave spaces that allow us to become ever more authentic and just.
© 2020 by Rus Ervin Funk, All Rights Reserved