Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”
– Pema Chödrön
The Friday night after the Charleston shooting, I attended a vigil along with the youth group at my church. I saw the event on Facebook through my mother and felt called to show up, so I proposed the idea to our youth pastors, and we made it happen. Rev. Matthews (pastor from Alabama, I think) gave an incredible sermon and several women from the From Pensacola group spoke as well. The words hit me hard. Being around these beautiful people brought me to my knees. Oh, Lord, how long must this go on? BREAK OUR HEARTS FOR WHAT BREAKS YOURS. There was anger in the words spoken that night. There was frustration, from all sides, understandably. There was also transparency and deep compassion. I tried to see them and they tried to see me–we had to try because of the color of our skin. We had to try, and that breaks my heart. Why it can’t be completely natural is the tragedy. After the vigil, Trina from From Pensacola (Trina, if you’re reading this, it was truly wonderful to meet you) came over to tell us thank you for coming. She was talking to our pastor Hailey and said something along the lines of “we just need to have this conversation, we have to attempt to see past the biases and barriers.” The truth of her words made me want to sob because I hate that the barrier exists and I try to deny that it is there. I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and say I SEE YOU, I LOVE YOU, and I want to UNDERSTAND your struggle. I’m sorry I didn’t say that when I had the opportunity. I can never truly know what I do not know and I HATE that, but I understand that hating it does NOTHING. All I can do is listen and be there and love you through it. I am angry and sad and hopeful and impassioned all at the same time. It’s a confusing and vital time for our country.
I’m currently listening to Brené Brown’s The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings of Authenticity, Connection, and Courage and it’s inspiring me on a whole new level. I can read all the books and listen to all the podcasts, but until I’m willing to do the work and feel the uncomfortable feelings, it’s all for naught. With that said, I’m challenging myself to go out into the world and let myself be seen. I’m putting my honest writing into the world and I’m speaking my truth in both relationships and in professional settings. Brown talks about how we can only love people as much as we love ourselves. This is both devastating and incredible news. Incredible because we can actually love ourselves! Crazy right?! Devastating because most of aren’t really there yet. It takes work and we’ve become apathetic. We’ve put up defenses because it’s too risky to show up as we are. We must transcend the shame and fear in order to love ourselves and then love others. We have to forgive ourselves and begin our journey of self-love in order to show love and compassion to other people. We cannot show empathy and compassion without vulnerability. We have to be willing to step into other people’s stories and try to understand. That’s what I’m trying to do.
And this is me showing up in the face of the darkness the best way I know how: writing. I’m showing up because I believe I’ve reached the point (as a culture we reached it long ago) where it’s too dangerous to stay silent in my comfortable, privileged world. It’s uncomfortable to admit to myself that I am privileged by the very color of my skin. It threatens to bring guilt and shame but I will not let those feelings come because guilt and shame also bring silence and barriers. I try to live in the truth–the truth that we (all of mankind) are MORE THAN ENOUGH without having to do anything at all. More than enough because we live in a world created by a God who is love and loves us entirely PERIOD. More than enough because we have a Father who died so we could be worthy. Everything else is layers of ego, fear, hatred, guilt, and shame that have been imposed on us through a culture of lack and comparison.
Bell Hooks said that “language is a place of struggle.” We don’t all share the same languages or cultures. But we do have that one thing in common: we are love and we are enough just because we ARE. So I will speak from that sacred ground, at least trying to engage in an honest conversation.
Racism is nothing new–its roots run deep in this country and its roots run deep in my race in particular. I cannot, cannot ignore my ancestors past. I hate racism and I don’t agree with it and I do everything in my power to avoid it, yet I still can’t seem to escape it. I have to face my bias and recognize my privilege if I have any hope of affecting even a ripple of change. Like many others, the Charleston shooting shook me to my center and broke my spirit. The feeling has lingered and I’m itching to do something. I don’t know what to do and it overwhelms me. So I’m writing. I’m showing up at vigils. I’m having conversations. I’m trying not to be too hard on myself for not really understanding because I can’t relate to the struggle in the black community. We all struggle, but white people just have not had to struggle in that arena. We haven’t felt that particular kind of fear or shame that comes with a society telling you that you are not enough. Sure, society tells us we are not enough every day in a hundred different ways, but not enough because the color of our skin? I haven’t had to face that one. I’ve been scared to show up in that arena because I can’t relate. I’m scared to show up because I’m a young, white upper-middle-class woman. So I’ve been reading books, listening to podcasts, talking, and praying. Now I’m taking another step. Maybe I’m not “qualified” to speak on this subject, but you know what? I don’t care. We have to talk about it. All I can do is continue to educate myself and continue to listen to other people’s stories and realities. I want to hear them, I want to be there with love and compassion and an open heart. I may not understand completely, but I LOVE YOU and I AM HERE. I hear your story and I validate its reality. Please, God, help me know what I cannot ever truly know.
Beyond just trying to understand and have compassion, I want to act. I feel overwhelmed by my need to do something and I think we live in a culture where we feel like we need to do something huge and public in order to affect change. This is not the case. So I’m trying to let go of the “overwhelmed” feeling and just do my best and keep showing up. Teaching is not a job for me. It’s my calling and it’s what lights me up. I find meaning in it and I want to use my work as way to serve and love and educate (lol, obviously). I love to learn and I believe in the power of education. I want my students to teach ME, I want to know them, and I want to understand.
I’ll be teaching in a Title One school come August where the majority of the kids are on free and reduced lunch and 53% of the population is black. I can only continue to try understanding what I’ll never really understand–beyond just race but extending into the arenas of class, gender, and so on. It is always a good idea to educate yourself and be open to other perspectives. Angela Watson did a great podcast titled Speaking out about race, poverty, riots, and our students–it is transcribed in the link and I will quote the most profound parts here:
“I’ve not kept silent because I’m afraid of offending, or because I don’t care. I’ve kept silent because I don’t feel qualified to speak on it. The intersection between my life and issues of race and poverty have been by my choice. I’m white and I grew up middle class, and I don’t ever want to appropriate other people’s experiences which I can never fully understand.
Part of me says, Who am I to claim to have anything of value to say here? But a much bigger part of me is saying, Who are you to keep silent? Who are you to look in the face of such grave and widespread injustice and say nothing?”
“If we choose to teach students who live in urban poverty, I believe we have a moral imperative to serve the families in the community with dedication, empathy, compassion, and generosity. Please don’t go teach in the inner city if you don’t have a heart for serving those kids. This is real life, not Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, and it’s tough work forging relationships with kids whose world you don’t fully understand. I’m speaking from experience here–we have to know what we don’t know and understand our own bias as white people from a different economic class. It’s a real thing–trust me, your kids know your limitations and you should, too. You have to approach your role as teacher in those communities not as a savior, but as a servant. Your goals have to be to love, to connect with, and to educate kids. Work to understand the community and build relationships, and think carefully about what you choose to say and also share on social media and how it might undermine those relationships.
And if you don’t teach kids in poverty, it’s even more important to refrain from passing judgement on these communities because you quite honestly know nothing about them. You have the privilege of being in a safe, upwardly mobile community. You don’t see people in your community dying while in police custody or shot without cause.It’s not even within the realm of possibility in your mind that YOUR son might die unjustly at the hands of the police. You won’t ever know that pain of losing your loved one in that way.”
I am also reading Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty as a way to understand some of the students I will be teaching. As I’ve said several times and as Angela Watson says, WE HAVE TO KNOW WHAT WE DON’T KNOW and understand our own biases. Above all, we have to be kind, compassionate, and loving. We have to listen. We have to speak up and show up. As a teacher, I am not a savior but a servant. As a human, I am love and loved and so is everyone else.