In the wake of current events rocking our world, the surge of both peaceful protests and violent riots surrounding the deaths of George Floyd and so many others, we may be at a tipping point. It’s a grossly overdue tipping point, and the long-term change that might unfold remains to be seen.
I work with several groups, all of which have been experiencing a huge range of emotions: heartache, shock, confusion, helplessness, anger, defensiveness, discomfort, fear, and more. Naturally, these are difficult to navigate. While some groups have quickly responded with eloquent messages of support, solidarity, and pledges for change, others remain suspended and silent. They are processing that jumble of emotions, trying to find words, agonizing over ‘What do we say, what do we do, what is our message?’
A reporter once asked Mahatma Gandhi, “What is your message?” Gandhi replied, “My life is my message.”
My life is my message. I love this concept. Simple, and also generous and compassionate. Within a lifetime are many failures and mistakes along with successes and triumphs; it’s a spectrum of continually shifting actions and experiences. We make sense of the whole, the totality, rather than singular moments.
This gives us time and grace. In the life of an individual, we have abundant opportunities to get things right, countless chances to connect, many occasions to discover our truths and reveal and heal our collective wounds. We have time to make mistakes and remedy them. Focusing on the whole of our lives as messages rather than single actions and statements in the moment is more aligned with the concept of a moral universe, made famous by Martin Luther King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The arc bends with the sum total of our lives, towards justice when we live with conscience, or away from it without conscience.
Organizations have lives too. Like individuals, they worry about the consequences of their actions and inactions. They worry about the right thing to say, fearing the message will come out wrong. They worry about the right thing to do, fearing it will result in disaster. Inevitably, whatever we say and do will be the wrong thing for some people, and we want to avoid that withering ridicule or vitriol. So it’s easy to be silent or do nothing.
In a previous article, I wrote about reflection and the opportunity given by COVID-19 to tap into our internal wisdom. Now, we have more reason to reflect both as individuals and as organizations. Well-crafted, eloquent messages and elegant speeches won’t bring us deep change, but deep listening and honest self-examination, done privately and in community with others, will.
When we don’t have the words, when we have trouble making sense of things, when the issues are too difficult, what can we do?
Show we care. What does that mean? I show I care when I admit my discomfort, my confusion, and my loss for words. I admit the truth of my feelings. If someone condemns my feelings, knowing that I acted out of my caring helps heal the wound more quickly. More often, people respond kindly and reciprocate the vulnerability. We all appreciate honest exposure, and can relate to the courage it takes.
Listen. Really listen. “Tell me more.” Deep listening is a selfless act. We expect no courtesy or exchange in return, but what we learn from our listening transforms our outlook, and it’s worth it.
Trust that when you show you care, others are listening. Whoever is listening will feel it and appreciate it. Someone who is not listening is also not reachable, and that’s out of your control. Let go and comfort yourself when they reject or rebuke your act of caring.
Trust that others are doing the best they can, given all that they have. When I’m given this grace, I rise up to be better. I try to remember to give the same grace to others. Our “best” changes every day. Remember, it’s the long term that matters, the totality of life that counts. Everyone sharing the journey with us knows this, and forgives us for our short-term failures.
I’m keeping the arc in mind, because my actions over time control where it bends in my world and my community. That’s the ultimate message. In the meantime, here and now, I’m not worrying about appearances, speeches, and elegance. I will make small commitments I know I can fulfill, not big promises I can’t keep. I will simply care and listen, and trust the rest will fall into place.