People are hard to hate up close. Move in. The author and researcher, Dr. Brene Brown wrote these words as the title of a chapter in her newest book, Braving the Wilderness, and I wholeheartedly agree with her.
In our current cultural climate, we silo ourselves and each other based on labels we think best describe who we are. I am a liberal. You are a conservative. I’m pro-choice. You’re pro-life. I’m a Jew. You’re a Christian. I’m law abiding. You’re not. I could write an entire book on the ways we separate ourselves by the labels we think we hold. According to Brown, we have become similar to the people who surround us & lonelier than any generation before us. Research shows that loneliness & social isolation are just as dangerous, if not more dangerous than smoking or obesity. In fact, studies have shown that social isolation leads to premature death!
By continuing to silo and segregate ourselves from people who think differently than we do, we lose important moments of deeper & more meaningful connections & opportunities for learning. This is true in every aspect of our human existence. When we deny the lived experiences, emotions, and humanity of others, we deny those very things in ourselves.
For me, this is a deeply spiritual issue. In Judaism we acknowledge that every person is Betzelem Elohim, made in the image of God. This means that no matter what we look like, what we believe, or what mistakes we have made, we still add value to this world. It means that our connections to other human beings help us connect more to ourselves. Likewise, our connections to ourselves help us to connect on a deeper level with others. These connections might be through art, music, or conversations with strangers in coffee shops.
There are four oversized, but very comfortable, leather sofa chairs in my favorite coffee shop. I like to go there early in the morning to write. A few months ago, I was sitting in the coffee shop feverishly typing away on my laptop when an older man came and sat next to me and asked me what I was doing.
I explained that I was writing about restorative justice and sexual violence, which just provoked more questions. What I expected to be a quick response turned into an hour long conversation. Within a few short minutes this man knew I was a queer, Jewish, rape survivor who studied sexual violence and worked with men who had committed sex crimes. He didn’t quite understand my angle, but I persisted. I began asking him questions about his own life. He was a military man, a lifelong Episcopalian who almost left the church in 2003 after the first openly gay bishop was consecrated. Then his daughter came out as a lesbian and his views shifted. His eyes were filled with tears as spoke of his close-minded beliefs and the changes he made. He is still an Episcopalian and has embraced the diversity and inclusive nature of his church.
I can only imagine the courage it took this man to look into the eyes of a queer, liberal, Jew and profess that he almost left his church because of its inclusion of people like me.
At some point the conversation turned back to my work in restorative justice. He still couldn’t believe I’d sit with “monsters”.
Now was my time to be vulnerable.
I looked him in the eye and admitted that at one time I would have seen him as a monster simply because of his beliefs about gays in the church. I believed that “you were either with me or against me.” My beliefs over time had changed, as I leaned into uncomfortable & meaningful conversations with people who believed differently than me. I told him that my work in restorative justice is really no different than the conversation that we just had. I explained the principles of restorative justice and talked about how these difficult moments between “survivor” & “perpetrator” were some of the most important, spiritual, & connected moments of my life. When we finished our conversation, both of us were forever changed by our interaction.
The values inherent in restorative justice are ones we can adhere to in every aspect of our lives: Howard Zehr, a prominent figure in restorative justice, writes:
1. Honor and value the humanity of all people.
2. Be aware of the impact of your thoughts, behaviors, and actions.
3. When you harm someone, acknowledge the harm you’ve caused and take responsibility for your actions.
4. Treat everyone you encounter with respect – even when you think they don’t deserve it.
5. Involve all parties in decision-making processes.
6. Think of conflicts and harm as opportunities for learning and growth.
7. Listen deeply & compassionately and try to understand even if you don’t agree.
8. Engage in dialogue, even when it is hard & even when what is being said is difficult. Remain open to learning.
9. Be careful about imposing your truths onto others.
10. Confront everyday encounters with sexism, racism, homophobia, and other injustices, but do so with sensitivity and compassion.
The way I characterize these values and principles is simple: Be kind. Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about.
I know this is difficult to do. I know that humans are quick to judge one another, to segregate based on labels, titles, and social locations, and to hold firm to our beliefs and opinions. In doing so we miss important opportunities for connections with others. I don’t remember the name of the man in the coffee shop, but I know that the conversation deeply impacted both of our lives.
The next time you are in line at a store, or sitting alone in a coffee shop I challenge you to lean in. Find someone who is different from you, someone you wouldn’t typically connect with, and engage in a dialogue with them. How did this impact you? Them? What did you learn?
If the thought of doing this terrifies you, think about the following questions. What kind of world do you want to live in? A world where we are all connected? A world without hatred and judgement? A world where every story matters and every voice is elevated? Or do you want to live in a world where people, including yourself, are dismissed simply because you are different? Because you made a mistake? Because you committed a crime?
Change begins with the actions of one person. Your connection to another human being will help you connect more to yourself. This might be an overwhelming or uncomfortable thought, but I assure you, it is worth it.