Have you ever stumbled upon someone new on the internet and been like, THIS PERSON IS THE ANSWER!! and so you download all their things and join all their groups and then…you’re sorely disappointed? This is a story about that experience, but it’s also a story about the changes we can make, both within ourselves and to the world around us, using a single tale of disappointment to hold the center of the tale firmly in place.
Want me to read this to you? Listen in below.
I joined a new group of females in an online group and lasted nearly a week before I had to quit.
A female business owner said that a man was clearly sexist because he was making his payments late. The top 3 comments were: “What a prick!” “What a dick!” and “What an asshole!”
First, that’s a lot of anger without any further details being given. Second, if the top 3 comments on a man’s complaint about a woman were, ‘What a pussy!’ ‘What a c*nt!’ and ‘What a bitch!’ these woman would have been the first to line up and scream in his face about what a terrible man he was and how we do NOT use women’s body parts as insults EVAR!!!!!!!!!
Name-calling does no one any good. Ever. Not in Kindergarten, and not in the first grade or the second, and most definitely not now.
A woman was asking about better ways to engage in civil conversations with those who disagree with her, as she was looking for support in being a more open, engaged, and understanding individual across lines of gender, race, economics, etc…
Another woman kept popping in to say “The time for conversations has passed” and then to yell about an unrelated, extremely charged topic she found important. I’m not sure how a single woman with no access to the political levers of power is supposed to deliver on the angry woman’s demands, full-stop, via social media, but it derailed the conversation completely. The same rant-y woman also accused someone who had simply tagged her in the comments of that same conversation as having committed a micro-aggression.
Screaming and ranting about an unrelated topic in the middle of a civil conversation, then accusing someone of committing a micro-aggression against you while you’re currently doing far worse is abhorrent behavior, no matter your color, class, gender, or religion.
A woman said she was genuinely torn about starting a business because it would support capitalist society, and capitalism is “problematic AF.” She had genuine concerns about earning ANY compensation AT ALL and had therefore been ‘thinking of’ starting a business for years. YEARS.
Completely and utterly refusing to participate in a system you label problematic without taking part in a larger movement allows the cycle you deem harmful to perpetuate itself without resistance.
I spent the better part of that week observing with my mouth hanging open, like, WTF IS GOING ON HERE!? What’s getting under my skin about this group? What’s the thing behind the thing that’s making me all judgy and weird and keeping me up at night?
…and then I realized: there is no non-reactive presence here. This is like throwing an anger bomb into a roiling cauldron and then watching it affect everyone and everything nearby.
“The revolution can’t be violent because violence is one of the things we’re revolting against.” — some guy at a conference whose name I didn’t write down, but DAMN is he smart
Name-calling and angry ranting are forms of violence. Swerving healthy and productive conversations off topic to advance your own agenda is a form of violence. Screaming in all caps at strangers on the internet while pretending to be enlightened is — you guessed it — a form of violence.
Non-reactive presence means that you don’t automatically mirror the energy of another person, nor do you let that person leech your energy.
Non-reactive presence means you feel, yes, but you don’t let your feelings tip over into violence.
Just as you expect your therapist to keep his or her shit together instead of flipping coffee tables when you talk about being angry, those who are going about changing the world have got to keep our shit together in order to make change for the long haul.
Can you be angry? Absolutely. Should you scream at strangers all day because you’re so angry? Probably not, because it’s too easy to keep the violence in circulation.
Further: no one in the examples is taking action.
Calling the system entirely broken and completely refusing to participate in it — even to reform it or change its flaws from the inside — absolves you of taking action.
Painting the ‘other side’ as a bunch of assholes incites name-calling, but requires no further action.
Ranting about a single cause to anyone who will listen, regardless of whether you’re off-topic or not, looks like action but is really just a lightning-fast energy burn that tries the patience of everyone around you.
Which brings me to college.
The most hated book in the entirety of my college experience was titled, ‘Asking the Right Questions.’ It was part of the core curriculum for all four years of my honors classes, and there was a collective ‘Ugggggggh’ whenever it was mentioned.
All I remember of it now is that, no matter what, the final question to ask of any idea, project, experience, or encounter is: ‘What, therefore, should we do?’
With more than a decade of distance from its pages, I can see that it’s actually a helpful question. The penultimate question. A fucking fantastic question!!!!!
So, this smoothie sucks or those who subscribe to the patriarchal mindset aren’t interested in closing the wage gap or yoga is starting in ten minutes or our healthcare system is broken? Tiny problem, huge problem, seemingly insurmountable problem?
What, therefore should we do?
The question works for issues big and small, and it always sparks action.
We add some honey and make the smoothie sweeter.
We ask males to donate 23% of their wages to women’s rights groups and when they say, “That’s absurd,” we point out that the gender wage gap (of the same size) is also absurd.
We hop in the car and get to class.
We get informed and call our representatives with specific requests.
Without asking what we should do, we often keep the desperate, spinning type of fear and outrage in circulation.
You’ve seen it all over the place lately. Your co-worker is upset (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) about something (!!!!!!!). Your Mom is freaking out (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!). Your colleague is LOSING HER MIND. That guy is ALL THE PISSED about politics and sharing 14 ranty articles a day.
There’s a place for anger and outrage in society — and even in social media — but those energies often push people away, causing allies to run screaming, and ideological opponents to further entrench in their firmly-held beliefs.
People don’t change their beliefs when they feel unsafe. Period.
When you see someone in the middle of the street screaming about the apocalypse and how it’s on its way because THE ALIENS, MAN, THE ALIENS, you don’t feel like that person is stable. Since instability is inherently unsafe, your beliefs don’t change even though you miiiight believe in aliens. You’re too freaked out for your personal safety to fully hear what the person is saying.
Screaming at someone never, ever makes them feel safer.
When we don’t feel safe, we put up our walls and preserve ourselves like little armadillos — impenetrable, practically bullet-proof armadillos. This is particularly true of empaths, who are sensitive to even subtle and tiny energies, and who are physically hurt by eruptions of uncontrolled rage in others.
Anger can be a powerful tool for rallying troops and galvanizing causes of all kinds, but it has absolutely no power to move someone who’s at the opposite end of your belief spectrum toward you.
If, however, you can create or enter into a space in which you both feel as if you’re capable of being heard, the entrenching instincts loosen up and change might actually happen. Maybe you give a little, maybe the other person concedes a few points, maybe you walk away knowing you have a great deal in common. But stepping into an already-existing topical conversation and leading with interrupting vitriol is a losing tactic every time. (Krista Tippett’s Civil Conversations project is worth checking out if you want to explore calm and often uncomfortable conversations in depth.)
What, therefore, should we do?
Ask yourself if the articles you’re sharing, the sentiments you’re relating, or the stories you’re telling help people to take action of any kind.
Action builds relationships.
Action fights hopelessness.
Action says, ‘Hey, we might not be able to do much, but we can do this,’ instead of sinking into despair or pessimism.
It’s easy to point out the way something is broken or imperfect.
It takes very little effort to point out the ways someone or something is doing it wrong.
It’s simple to say that you reject a system wholesale and that you won’t compromise your beliefs even 1%, thereby absolving you of any participation whatsoever.
What, therefore, should we do?
Because on the other side of tearing a house down, you’re going to have to build a new one.
Ripping a house down to the studs is quick work, and fun, and MY GOD you feel so good at the end of the day. ::insert Kristen making T-Rex noises with a sledgehammer here:: But at the end of the work week, you’ve gone from having a functioning house with electricity and plumbing and walls and ceilings to a bunch of boards and dust. Without careful planning and a shit-ton of action, you can reduce a flawed-but-functional system to a broken mess in no time at all.
Criticizing everything and everyone is easy. What’s hard is finding a new way of being in society.
It’s far more difficult to model a new way of living within the fabric of the current culture, and then to share that model with anyone willing to take note. Kindly. Without ranting. With understanding for the pain every single human on earth experiences just for being alive.
So the next time someone rightly points out that the system is broken or is marginalizing people, or that politicians are doing their nefarious deeds, or that we’re all going to die of X sooner rather than later, listen. And then ask:
What, therefore, should we do?
The answer is not always obvious or easy, but it does generate hope and a way forward every time you can answer it.
Here are universal actions to take when it feels like there aren’t any actions available.
We curate what we read, listen to, and consume. We cast the net of voices we listen to in wider and more diverse directions.
We monitor our input and output closely.
We make note of and then share those voices capable of suggesting changes or improvements without resorting to name-calling and other outlawed-in-Kindergarten type behaviors.
We breathe deeply and often. We keep breathing when it would be easier to lash out. We breathe as if our lives depend on it. (Because actually, they do. It’s why I’ve been certified in Breathwork and I’d love to show you the ropes later this year!)
We find simple actions to take, even if those actions feel tiny and insignificant in the face of a seemingly insurmountable problem.
We keep asking good questions.
We keep reaching for a better way of doing life. Right here, right now.
We keep our joy, because joy is an act of resistance.
We take fear and anger out of circulation, over and over and over again, even when we’re so fucking angry that we want to punch someone/a wall/a politician/all 3.
For more about taking anger out of circulation, listen to this podcast episode about the lie of redemptive violence. Basically, when someone punches you and you punch them back, literally or energetically, you’re keeping the violence in circulation. It’s far, far more difficult to take a punch and then refuse to punch back. That’s taking the violence out of circulation. We’ve been punching and then punching back as humans for thousands of years, but every now and again a Gandhi or a Dr. King figure comes along to point to the hope that there’s a different, third way to do this living thing.
We don’t become agents of contempt or spite, even when we have every reason to do so.
We take hope into our hands and let it warm us in the coldest, darkest nights, because we’re capable of doing things differently.
All of us. Each one of us.
We’re building a world, together.
We don’t let the hate, fear, rage, and contempt swirling around us take over or change the core of who we are. And at the end of the day, we are people who take action.
“What is the answer? I am.” — Roger Wolfson