In response to my last post, Beth asked an important question regarding what can we do? How can we move forward from here? I have been thinking about this question a lot this week. And while I don’t have a “to do” list as an answer, I do have thoughts on some of the shifts that can take place internally, that can then lead to more creative, transformative actions in the world. Here they are:
Recognize the interdependence of our lives.
As much as the dominant version of American national identity wants to claim that we are “autonomous,” we are not. Our “I” is always constructed within our “we,” and sometimes we cannot see who is in the “we” that upholds our lives. I wonder if this reality of interdependence was in some sense easier to understand when more of us lived more connected to an agrarian society— when the basic goods of our lives were traded with our local neighbors? Now, the products that I eat and use everyday are created by those neighbors whom I can’t see.
I know it’s a small gesture—a really small exchange of grateful energy—but as we eat our food, and if we are the lucky ones who have access to fruits and vegetables, I do think it is important to give thanks for the people whose hands picked our tomatoes and apples. Perhaps those small moments of thanks everyday will add up and create within us increasing desire to recognize our interdependency, which then might help us participate in advocating for human rights.
For instance, if more of us had more consciousness of our interdependence, we might understand that immigrant rights, and more specifically, the rights of immigrants who are migrant workers in this country, is an issue very close to our daily lives. For the fruits of that neighbor’s labor is as near as it can be—it builds the very cells of our bodies and gives us the nutrients and energy we need for our own day’s work.
So, we need to cultivate daily moments that help us recognize our interconnectivity with our neighbors, even if that neighbor is not geographically proximate. I think that part of the reason such egregious human rights violations take place in this country is because we have a delusion that our “I” is not part of a larger collective “we.”
(If you want some thought-provoking satire to think more about interdependence as applied to immigrant and migrant rights, listen to Colbert’s take on the situation in Alabama. I am always a bit concerned that his satire of racist attitudes could potentially lead to re-inscribing racist categories, but all in all, Colbert makes some good points via satire. Read here if you need more background on the expulsion in Alabama. Or listen to Jay Smooth’s brilliance as he talks about paying our respect to a nation of immigrants.)
Cultivate practices of compassion.
Rationalism and persuasion and well researched ideas are important, but they can only take us so far. At a certain point, across our respective political, religious, and ideological differences, we must be committed in our very core to compassion toward suffering. It is only from that commitment that we will be able to creatively, productively partner across our differences to try to change the economic and political systems that lead to wide-scale suffering. It is from a shared commitment to compassion that a historian, an ethicist, and CEO can sit down at the table and bring their respective trainings to these critical issues. But, without exercising compassion as the foundational muscle of our essence, these conversations and debates are not fruitful.
Practicing compassion also means allowing ourselves to grieve—to see that as individuals we are a part of collective systems that are putting in peril the survival of the earth and of our neighbors. For some of us as we grieve, we recognize more deeply the harm that has been done to us or our community; for others, we might recognize more the harm we have done to others, perhaps without knowing it. I think that in an age of globalization and such complex interdependency, many of us have to grapple with simultaneously playing the roles of perpetrator in certain parts of our identity (like the racial privileges white women carry) and being the ones who are harmed (like the violence and sexism that all women, regardless of race, are statistically more vulnerable to). The ethical call on our lives is complicated, because we are not equally culpable in the same ways. Some of us, and some of our communities, are indeed more culpable in specific ways. The task is being honestly and rigorously self-reflective, even as we recognize that the larger issue is how we participate in changing large-scale global and historical systems.
Find the small groups of people with whom you will create dialogue, goodness, and beauty in this world.
Perhaps that group is your co-workers, your faith community, your housemates, your family (biological or chosen), your school, your beloved friends. But, get together for an evening and generate collective, hope-filled imagination. Do you have unused coats you all could donate? Perhaps you could call up poorly funded schools in your community and see if there are children who need new school or art supplies? Maybe you want to buy calling cards and distribute those to people who don’t have cell phones or money to call their families over the holidays? Are their families in your community who need help with groceries for their Thanksgiving dinner? Might you, if you celebrate Thanksgiving, allow a moment of silence to grieve what the western European’s encounter with American Indians meant in terms of the ensuing genocide?
Being compassionate toward the suffering of others does not mean that you can’t celebrate the abundance at your own table. Quite the opposite, actually. Our tenderness toward pain—particularly historical cycles of pain and violence in our own country—can cultivate in us deep gratitude that helps us more fully taste the food at our dinner table. From my experience, I believe that to feel compassion deeply also means opening oneself to feeling joy and gratitude deeply. It is difficult, of course, to hold the pain of this world alongside the profound beauty of this world—but opening ourselves to feeling deeply is opening ourselves to the depths of our human-ness. Engaging grief AND beholding beauty are both necessary as we create transformation in the world.
Finally, value the contribution of “little things” to these larger issue.
I believe and love the miraculous story of Jesus in the Gospels, in which a few loaves and fish generously given add up to abundance that is mysteriously much more than the sum of the individual parts. You cannot quantify your giving, because there is simply no way to know how your kindness and compassion will re-shape the world. You cannot know how your small acts of caring are part of a larger collective tapestry of justice being woven. So, spend time with yourself and consider where your source of energy and passion lies. What is your “garden to tend?” Then, faithfully do the smallest of things you feel most called to do—and trust that your “I” is part of a glorious, collective “we” that is part of a greater human story of justice.