By Sica Schmitz
Founder of Bead & Reel, frequent speaker, writer, and sustainable stylist.
Last year I went to a documentary screening about one of Africa New Day‘s programs in the Congo which rehabilitates and heals rapists (I can’t find it online anywhere, otherwise I would link to it!). It was a powerful film, especially for me as a survivor of rape.
The program offers a really unique perspective: each person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done, and deserves to be treated that way. We are each more than the worst thing we’ve ever done, and deserve to be treated that way.
What I find so beautiful about this concept is that it doesn’t condone or accept terrible things, but it instead chooses to see people as whole beings instead of individual moments and choices. We are each given 31,557,600 seconds per year, and just as many opportunities to make decisions about what to say or do. And not all of them will be great decisions. Not all of them will be admirable decisions. Not all of them will be kind decisions. But to assume that people can be reduced down to only a portion of their seconds and choices is to miss the wider scope of what it means to be a human being.
And I’m saying this as someone who has spent half my life (and an immense amount time and energy) doing deep, painful work to heal my body and soul from the worst parts of another human’s choices, and I don’t think I’m done yet.
But I think this idea is really big, and really important, especially in today’s culture of recreational outrage, division, and extremes, where I regularly watch a tweet or a photo or a (cough) Bead & Reel blog post spark an avalanche of fury or attacks or meanness, especially from strangers. And as I repeatedly witness this lashing out against anything that isn’t popular or isn’t part of the talking points or is simply different than someone’s own experience or preferences, I’ve realized that often the problem isn’t who is or isn’t on the “right” side of any issue or ideal, but instead the lack of empathy, understanding, and grace being offered to each other. The lack of accepting that we all have different life experiences and therefore different ways of understanding and navigating and making choices through this totally wild life.
I so often see people forget that at best, we all making the best decisions we can, and at worst we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done (or, at least more than any sentence or photo or opinion that you may disagree with).
I do not at all understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.
– Anne Lamott
We don’t have to agree with everything someone says or does to still honor their humanity. We don’t have to stop working to end sexual violence, sexism, racism, speciesism, and all forms of injustice and oppression to still offer grace, to everyone.
We don’t have to focus all of our attention on letting others know how wrong they are in order to change the world.
And I’m not saying this just because I’m being a Kumbaya vegan yogi (though I totally am that): I’m saying this because we’re not going to be able to create meaningful change as long as we’re stuck in cycles of anger, blame, name-calling, judgment, and reaction. And I do believe we all really, really want to see things change, but the current approach simply isn’t working.
People are going to say and do things we don’t like – probably every day. And when that happens, I invite you to step back, take a deep breathe (or a few days worth or deep breaths, which I often have to do) and assume that every individual is worth more than anything they have ever said or done, and deserves to be treated that way.
NEVER WASTE A GOOD TRIGGER
When we have a strong reaction to something, it’s often because some part of our own unresolved past/issues/choices is being triggered. And this is a great thing! We can’t address our inner conflicts if we don’t know what they are. Triggers are uncomfortable and usually something we try passionately to avoid through justifications, numbing ourselves, or turning it onto (or against) others. But, next time you feel triggered, see if you can instead turn inward and find out what is causing your reaction, and what you need to do to heal it.
LEAD BY EXAMPLE
Hypocrisy is so easy to spot in others but less easy to spot in ourselves. So, if you’re feeling deeply offended by something, instead of reacting to it, instead see if you can view this as an exciting opportunity to look at your life and choices and see if you can find any areas where you aren’t living up to your deepest values. I have found that instead of giving unsolicited advice to others on why they are wrong or what they should totally be do differently (even though of course I totally feel qualified to do so), I am much more impactful when I instead focus on finding and correcting any ways that I am wrong or things I could be doing differently.
IF YOU HAVE NOTHING NICE TO SAY…
If attacking, belittling, or fighting with other people actually worked, we’d live in a very different world. But since I have never known anyone who has actually been name-called into changing anything about themselves, I think we need to find a different approach. If you can’t find a healthy way to address a situation, the best thing you can do is to put your time and energy elsewhere. Trust me, karma gets everyone in the end, and ultimately it’s not our job to make other people better people.
It’s a huge relief when you realize that no one is perfect. So, since we don’t have to actually worry about being perfect ourselves, or finding perfect people to have in our lives, we can release the pressure of having to agree with every single thing a person has ever said or done to still be friends with them, work with them, or create change with them. By focusing on the good someone does instead of fixating on their “faults,” we can get so much farther as a movement. (but this doesn’t mean you have to keep exploitive people in your life – you can always see the previous tip!).
WALK A MILE IN SOMEONE’S (VEGAN + FAIR TRADE) SHOES
I am very vocally not a fan of our current president, but nothing has given me more empathy for him than having my own very tiny public space here on my website, blog, and social media. Every single day people are judging me, unhappy with me, and telling me how wrong I am about absolutely anything and everything I’ve ever done. I am constantly being told what I should be doing differently, even though very few people have owned a company like mine, and nobody has had my individual life experiences. And watching this criticism unfold time and again has made me much humbler about my own (totally right, of course) opinions when it comes to jobs I’ve never had, decisions I’ve never been asked to make, and life experiences I’ve never lived.
FIGHT FOR SOMETHING, NOT AGAINST SOMETHING
This has taken me a long time to figure out, but I have (eventually) learned that working towards something we believe in is much more powerful than working against something we don’t believe in. That’s why I now promote vegan recipes and styles instead of sharing about the violence of factory farming, or advociate for fair trade brands instead of pointing out the ones who aren’t. So instead of commenting on a stranger’s blog letting them know how totally wrong their personal experience is, or criticizing a company because their model isn’t to your liking (you know, just some totally random examples…), give your time and money and focus to a cause or organization that you do agree with.
DON’T LOSE YOUR HUMANITY
Remember that all of us are so much more than the worst thing we’ve ever done (or said, or written, or thought, or posted online while having a really bad hair day…), and deserve to be treated that way.