That’s hard truth, because the world can be shaped in ways that harm and hurt, and it can happen by degrees.
So we grieve a world that has made oppression, hatred, injustice, and inequality feel so utterly normal.
I am currently in a time of transition. While I have never been particularly sentimental, a big part of my life has been taken up with reflective practice. So recently, I’ve been looking back as a way of looking forward, thinking about and learning from the last years. In particular, I've been spending time looking at writings from another recent time of transition, in 2015-2016. It has been nice to reconnect with aspirations and convictions I named then. For instance, it remains most important to me that we, as individuals and as communities, care for one another and our world. My reflective practices have value inasmuch as they integrate inner and outer transformation. I am interested in how cultural and religious beliefs and institutions help or hinder the development of social and ecological justice and lasting peace, and what we can learn from each other. I aspire to be open-hearted and willing to encounter truth and wisdom in each person and experience I meet, in resistance to the violent patriarchal, racist, capitalist fragmentation of our world and psyches, and to do this in community.
Last June, I was participating in a workshop dedicated to racial justice and wholeness, especially designed for white folks. During a discussion session, one participant recommended harnessing the power of shame to move us in the direction of justice. For proof of the effectiveness of this approach, he mentioned a study on anti-cigarette smoking campaigns, and that the only effective campaigns were those that utilized shame. It felt like quite the leap to me to move from an anti-smoking campaign to anti-racist work, but, even if that application could be justified, I felt immediately curious and suspicious of how he was framing the data.
I’ve spent a significant amount of my life supporting human beings navigate through and heal from difficult and distressing experiences: as a minister, mediator, conflict coach, peer counselor, support group facilitator, educator, and friend. And after spending tens of thousands of hours over decades of listening, I can wholeheartedly confirm what you already know: having healthy relationships with healthy boundaries in our unhealthy society is hard work.
One of my favorite descriptions of boundaries comes from Dr. Helena Liu: “the framework in which we take responsibility for our own emotions and actions and relinquish responsibility for the emotions and actions of others. They are fundamental to leading healthy and happy lives.” Importantly, Liu notes that these are living spaces, “dynamic and flexible”; the more in-tune we are to our needs and circumstances, the more we can customize our boundaries to the moment. At certain times in our lives, or in certain relationships, we may relax or strengthen our boundaries. In other words, and if I may borrow from a well-known observance about the Sabbath, boundaries are made for human wellbeing; humans are not made for boundaries.
I grew up in a working class family, with an emphasis on community and helping each other during times of need. Those of you who have listened to my reflections in the past know that these experiences were far from perfect, especially when it came to understanding and resisting oppressive systems, from racism to misogyny. Despite these limitations, it was still in my working class family that I received the first tools for deciphering this mess of injustice and oppression that we’ve collectively come to accept as normal. My father especially extolled the importance of labor and unions, as well as studying and understanding history. And even the conservative religious community that hurt and alienated me so thoroughly, also gave me a lens to understand justice, peace, and a vision of healthy, happy society beyond the long reach of exploitation, violence, and inequality.
“… it is a question about the overall shape of our lives and our society. Will they be characterized by violence, relying on our capacities for coercion and aggression? Or will they be characterized by healthy social bonds, relying on our capacities for wisdom and compassion? Which action will be exceptional, violence or empathy? Which action will be normal, violence or empathy? We can understand both paths as strategies to protect ourselves, and recognize that both possibilities live within us. But the research also points out that these are diverging paths. We nourish one path at the expense of the other. … Each decision we make is something of a crossroads. Collectively and personally, our decisions answer the question: which direction do we choose?”