It’s such an unassuming word. Yet 14 years into my teaching career, and 35 years into my life, I am only just beginning to plumb the depths of its significance for human interaction.
As a pre-teen listening to my (great) Uncle Richard preaching, I heard the story of how his mother was taken off guard by his conception long after raising her first 3 children. He solemnly shared how, uncertain that she wanted to navigate raising a child the same age of her grandchildren, she’d scheduled his abortion, only changing her mind at the last minute while she sat in the waiting room of the clinic. Compassion for my Great Grandmother and an inkling of the courage of her decision blended with relief that I had my Uncle Richard, and I gained perspective
When I taught my first transgender student and she tremulously asked me to call her by her new name, fear was etched across her face and my heart filled with compassion. Assuring her that I would, I witnessed the anxiety momentarily melting from her gaze. As she walked back out into the school, tears squeezed from the corners of my eyes for the difficulty of experience she was navigating, and I gained perspective.
After my sister came out as a lesbian, I hugged her while she cried because her former college roommate “wasn’t sure” she wanted my sister around her children anymore. Even after the tears abated, the lump in her throat was audible. My heart broke with compassion at her ongoing pain as she faced a relentless parade of relational shifts –each new response like another small cut adding vulnerability to her spirit. I cried for her pain, and I gained perspective.
When my Uncle Richard died unexpectedly in early 2020, his memorial service was massive. My mom described his memorial service to me over the phone, her voice almost hushed with awe as she told how the line of visitors wrapped around the building. The expected friends and loved ones became a multitude as they were joined by hundreds more who waited hours to pay their respects and speak to my aunt. One after another, people told stories of ways – some enormous, others seemingly inconsequential – that Uncle Richard had intersected with their lives; paying bills, listening to sorrows, sharing what he had. I thought for a long time about the impact of Uncle Richard’s life and I gained a shade more of perspective.
Sitting on the couch last weekend, overrun by 4 of my 6 adopted nieces and nephews, underneath the giggles and squabbles, I considered the way they came to my family. Each started with a different story: neglected, abused, “too complicated” to be welcome in most homes . . . I try to imagine their biological families with complexity, to quell the anger I sometimes feel over the damage they inflicted on these beautiful babies. I work to have compassion for them, and to be thankful, because without them I would not have these 6 beautiful humans enriching my life. I strive to gain perspective.
I have been quiet over the past few weeks. As the tidal wave of responses to a major supreme court decision exploded across all platforms, I have tried to allow myself time to observe, read, and listen. I read the published results of Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — yes, all 213 pages. Through reaction videos I have witnessed tears, diatribes, rage, fear, and even (over in the footnotes – since I live in a very politically liberal place) a tiny bit of rejoicing. My New York Times subscription continues to ply me with opinion pieces and updates and women’s voices are raised across every online platform —reacting.
This morning, the following cross-section of statements and quotes were shared by people from diverse spheres of my life who I appreciate, admire, and respect:
- “I’m grateful for the absolutely naked reveal of the other side. It’s always important to know EXACTLY who your enemies are, and they’re revealing themselves in ruling, in writing, and in their verbal comments.”
- “Legalized elective abortion was the consolation prize given to women in 1973 for the centuries of inequality and oppression that stemmed from their sin of not being men. While every [parent] should want their children, our status as human beings at any stage of life should not depend on who wants us or whether we are wanted at all.”
- “I believe religion needs to mind its own f**king business.”
- “F**k you republican conservative a**holes. Go suck on J***s’ left nut while the rest of us try to survive through your torment and treachery and get our bodily autonomy back.”
- “I lament the impoverishment of a social imagination that cannot conceive of a world in which women can flourish without abortion.”
- “I’ve been made to feel bad about dumping friends since Trump was elected. I don’t regret a single one today. Our bodies, human rights, will always be more important than someone who pretends they want what’s best for you.”
And over and over again, echoes of: “If you believe that Roe V. Wade being overturned was a positive/good thing, then we are no longer associated. We are not friends, we are not family, you do not mean anything to me anymore.”
These messages paralyze me.
Words are a powerful tool, one I lean on heavily when processing what is challenging and working through my thoughts and emotions. As a verbal person, dialogue is an essential part of my life. I value immeasurably the handful of people I can call, knowing that they may disagree heartily with me, and ask to discuss points of contention without fear that our disagreements, however profound, will end our caring for one another. I strive to be thoughtful as I walk through this life, and experience has taught me that my solo perspective is rarely a complete or nuanced picture. As much as I struggle to admit it, in the vacuum of independent thinking my desire to be “right” is an acid that too often eats away at my compassion.
So in moments like these, when relational excommunication is the penalty for questioning and argument has eclipsed dialogue, I am left floundering, pondering, un-certainly biting my tongue. Past experiences murmur in my ear that thoughtful dialogue, humanized conversation, surely can enrich my perspective, will provide the nuance that permits growth. . . but the merest hint of uncertainty is taken as an act of war. I do not want to destroy my ties to people whose positions conflict with my own conscience. I do not want to be another voice ranting into my own personal void, waiting only to hear my own thoughts echoed back in response.
What happens when all you hear are echoes of your own thoughts? If we remove the people from our lives whose opinions are diametrically in opposition to our own, we are left with stagnant social discourse. Worse, we are at a terrible impasse with the dissonance in the world around us, existing with perpetual unproductivity in “Us vs. Them” bubbles of mutual disrespect. Eliminating disagreement, even the most profound disagreement, from our purview is socially destructive. Without passionate disagreement, our view of the world narrows to tunnel vision and the acid of our growing rightness violently dissolves our compassion. As compassion dwindles, we demonize mindsets and see enemies where once we saw people; we lose perspective.
I urge anyone who stuck with me this far to consider joining me in my personal resolutions:
Pursue true dialogue. Find intrinsic value in people, even (and perhaps especially) those you oppose. Choose paths of compassion. Continue to seek & develop perspective.