Last weekend I took a whole hour and listened to an audio recording that my cousin made with my grandma about her life. It was recorded 20 years ago, when she was 82. She was a graceful and reserved woman and one of my life’s true heroes. She told stories of her childhood, and her service overseas in WWII as one of the first women deployed as a member of the WAAC. I loved hearing her voice again. I grew up being told I was like her, tall and Dutch, reserved but with so much quiet purpose. I hope so. When I look at my hands these days, I see hers. Although she was raised in another time, and we never talked about race, I never saw her treat anyone with disrespect and the European fight against Hitler’s troops was clearly a highlight of her life. We all need to belong to a calling bigger than ourselves.
I had another blog ready to go this week but the changing landscape of the news hit hard over the last few days. The violence and ensuing riots and destruction is heartbreaking to watch. The act of harming another human being, let alone killing someone is not just unfathomable, it’s sickening. Things are broken in a deeply systemic way and it feels disempowering, because the problem runs so deep on a societal, economic, and psychological level. But at this point, standing up against indignity and injustice and speaking George Floyd’s name is the only choice, because I am sure that from the position of privilege I was born, if I’m not saying something, I’m part of the problem. Violence is never the answer, but it is the symptom of a deep rooted problem. And when something so fundamentally wrong has been done over and over again to people who have been made to feel unsafe in their own environments, there is a breaking point…and we are seeing it.
This morning I stood in my kitchen talking with my kids about what was in the news. Skin color in my own mind and day may be irrelevant, but the history that exists around it is not. And while anyone can be prejudice, prejudice only becomes racism when one group has more power than another and uses it to oppress and harm in a systemic way. I wanted to help them cut through the defensiveness and the noise to see what they can each do in the world to affect change. There is nothing in me that condones violence on any level, and I don’t believe these riots will fix anything, but I can see how after so many years of trauma and mistreatment, the rational mind is no longer leading the charge. So, even as I can feel overwhelm creeping in on my own nervous system about how a problem so big begins to heal, I take my words with them back to what I can control and as we talked, a totally different conversation from another day entered my mind.
While we were out on a walk one day a few years back, my friend Robin asked me:
“If there were more people like you in the world, would it be a better or worse place?”
I had of course never asked myself that question before and on that day I was feeling pretty down on myself because of my own family situation. Even though it felt like a less than humble answer, I managed to answer her…
“Better.” I said, and it filled me up inside. I want to be on the side of better.
To my kids I say: try, listen, be kind, stand up for yourself, and let people be themselves without your judgment. But above all treat every human with dignity and respect.
I never want anyone that crosses my path to feel less than, fairness is at the top of my list of virtues. As people, there isn’t one of us that doesn’t want to belong or know the sting that comes from being ostracized from the group. When that feeling is embedded generation after generation, the pain that it causes is great. Belonging helps show us our purpose and our path. Not belonging can carry us far from it and allow us to make decisions that are far from our best interests.
I believe most of us want to feel empowered, to find the energy and the lack of fear to be the change. We have to believe that this problem could be made better one person at a time. We want to be on the side of better. I could sit here and try to write something that inspires massive and systemic change throughout our country, but that would leave me feeling defeated. This isn’t a problem that gets solved overnight or by one person. But I can wake up every day and be on the side of better.
To all of the moms who live with fear about your sons being out late with their friends, I can only imagine that worry, but I’m with you. To the wives worried about their husbands when they haven’t come home, I’ve been there, but when I was, I didn’t have to wonder if my husband was going to be a victim of police brutality because of the color of his skin. Until all American’s are treated the same by our justice system, there will be violence that begets violence, the rift is too deep. But what I want to do everyday with my thoughts, words, and actions, is be on the side of better. Don’t be afraid to speak up just because this isn’t your reality or you are afraid to not get the words right. The strongest case for justice and dignity needs to be made by the ones who get to sleep peacefully at night. The controversy for speaking up is nothing compared to the damage that is done with our silence.