Tag Archives: equality

Courage, MLK Jr., and High School Memories

The summer after my sophomore year in high school, I went to a week long summer camp that changed my life. The camp was called Anytown and it was a group of 70 teens from Louisville and Lexington who all came from very different experiences of life. At Anytown I made my first Jewish friend. I made my first African American and Asian friends, I made my first friends who were open about a sexual orientation that was different than mine. At Anytown I learned that all people are the same AND that all people are different and we should celebrate both of those things.

We did lots of different things at camp. We met in what were called culture groups where we shared common experiences and then we met in mixed groups where we talked about some really challenging topics. It’s easy to say something’s not real or something’s not as bad as it seems when you’ve never actually experienced it. It’s different when you look into the face of a new friend and all of sudden hear the truth of what they have gone through. It was an intense week and it took a lot of honesty and courage to build the community we built, but we did it.

The fact that we did was even more important on the 5th day of camp. We woke up that morning feeling good about ourselves and each other and the diversity we were celebrating and sharing, but when we got to morning circle something had changed. Don, the man in charge – a seriously large and intimidating person – told us that we would not be together that day. We were divided into our culture groups. Whites with whites, blacks with blacks, Jewish with Jewish and so forth. We were told we wouldn’t be allowed to make eye contact or communicate with our friends from different groups. We were told that if we did or if we tried to mix the groups that we would be sent home from camp.

It was an awful morning that led into and awful lunch. No one broke the silence. No one wanted to risk Don’s wrath or being sent home. No one until Ren. I can still remember Ren standing up to Don in the campfire area after lunch. At first she alone dared to question why we were doing this. She raised her voice and stood firm and told him that it was unfair and wrong and that the whole point of the camp was to bring us together and that she wasn’t going to stand for it anymore. When Ren broke the silence others followed and finally when we were all in an uproar, Don called us back together and apologized. He told us that what Ren had done was the whole point of the experience. They had wanted us to stand up, they had wanted us to show courage. They had wanted us to come together as one to change the injustice.

It’s very easy to look at the world around us and ignore the fact that the dream Martin Luther King Jr. had isn’t fully implemented. It’s easy, even with the mounting stories of hate and discrimination that we are faced with to think that discrimination and injustice are really a problem mostly solved. We have a day to celebrate it – doesn’t that mean it’s all good?

What Ren did that day at camp for us was help us to imagine what people before us had experienced. In a very small way she demonstrated the kind of courage Martin Luther King Jr. showed as he led others to join together to fight for justice for all people that face the darkness of hate.

I look back on how scared I was to speak up that day at camp – even though I knew that segregating our community wasn’t right. I remember being paralyzed with fear to rock the boat even though at worst I would have just been sent home from camp. I was so envious of the courage that Ren showed to risk it all and speak up.

I look back and think how much more frightened was Martin Luther King Jr? He was speaking out against a system of oppression. He was speaking out against powerful people and groups. He was speaking out to change injustice that affected a whole country. How much more fear did he feel as he led groups of people to boycott the buses in after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. How scared was he when he marched from Selma to Montgomery. How terrified must he have been when he received threats against his life and the lives of the people he loved.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt said “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.”

Martin Luther King Jr. must have felt afraid, but his faith taught him that only love could drive out hate. That only light could fight darkness. He chose to speak up to call out and to lead others in walking a path of non-violent protest, to pray for change. He had a dream, a vision of what we could be if we as people looked outside of ourselves and could truly see, love and serve our neighbor.

Every Martin Luther King Jr. day I think back to Anytown and the lifelong friendships I made there. I am thankful for them and I am thankful for the courage that I learned from Ren. A courage that came from the dream of a great man. A courage that lives on in me and in each of us today if only we can move past the fear that keeps us from speaking. I challenge you this Monday to find a way to honor that courage. To choose to see, love and serve your neighbor in some concrete way. As Martin Luther King told us…Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Let us go out into our communities on Monday and be the light and the love.

If it was me…putting ourselves in another’s shoes

If it were me ___________________.
I am ____________, too. You don’t see me doing _____________.
My friend is ____________, if they were in that position I would want ____________.

In the past few weeks I have heard the fill-in-the-blanks above completed in numerous ways. In sentences about people working on Thanksgiving and people shopping on Thanksgiving. In the sentences of people who had full tables of food and warm homes and people who were seriously in need. In people defending Ray Rice and in people condemning him. I have heard leaders in government expressing opinions on people and people expressing opinions on leaders in government. And, let us not forget myriad thoughts of people about almost every conceivable position in Ferguson.

In the course of listening to the cacophony of anger, judgment, and gossip, I have noticed one sentiment, phrased numerous ways, seems to come up again and again. It’s a version of seeing things from another’s perspective and you can hear it in the fill-in-the-blanks above. We are taught to put ourselves in others’ shoes, but somewhere along the path, that adage has been corrupted.

Putting ourselves in others’ shoes doesn’t mean applying our personal beliefs, prejudices, and leanings to someone else’s life. Putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes at its core is about losing self for one minute. It’s trying to truly understand where someone who may be absolutely foreign and 100% different from us is coming from. It’s about experiencing reality the best we can from another person’s perspective.

When the language of putting ourselves in someone else’s place becomes about expressing what we think or would have done instead of seeking to be compassionate (literally to feel with), it is rotten to its core. It becomes just another way to advance the self-centeredness that seems to be ever-growing stronger in our society.

The next time you have the opportunity to fill in the blank on any of the sentences above, I implore you to spend a moment considering, “Do my words cause division?” Ask yourself if the “you” that you are putting in someone else’s shoes could ever really understand that person’s reality without having lived their life for a day, much less exchanged words.

We all have beliefs and opinions that we hold to be true that are based on real experiences and interactions. We all have free speech. We should share what we believe, but own it in a way that doesn’t simplify, negate, or repress another person’s life or reality to make ourselves feel better or superior. Because really, can we ever truly know what we would do if we were someone else?

The next time you fill in the blanks above consider doing it in the following way.

If it was me, I would try to do the absolute best I could do and hope others would make an effort to understand.

I am in need of support as well, you WON’T see me letting others fall.

My friend is that person I am judging in someone else’s eyes. If they were in that position I would want someone to truly seek to understand what it was like to honestly be “in their shoes.”

A Spider, The “Other”, and Our Humanity

Anthropomorphism is when we give human characteristics to non-human things. Sometimes we do it with objects, but more commonly this happens with animals. I remember sitting in my docent class at the Louisville Zoo and having our teacher, Doug, explain that the practice can be dangerous to both the people and the animals when this occurs.

Outside my workroom window lives a giant spider. When I first saw it I was a little freaked. I called in people from the hall to see it. It’s out of the ordinary and unique, easily the size of a half-dollar with yellow and brown stripes. After we ogled it a while, I continued about my work and didn’t see it again for a few days. I was relieved. It was a freaky spider.

Yesterday I was looking into the afternoon sun and a glint caught my eye. Silver, octagonal strands appeared before my eyes. There was a huge, beautiful, symmetrical web. It was so large there was no way it was new. It had to have been there all along. The spider hadn’t been hanging loose. It had been on its web, in its home. I just hadn’t seen it.

Today it’s back. I watch and stare as it sits in the middle of its home. I wonder in awe at nature’s capabilities and design. Alone in the workroom, I feel the need to tell the spider how gorgeous it is and how much I enjoy its presence outside the window. It’s windy and the web pulses on currents of air. The spider remains calmly at the center. I start to wonder if it really is calm. Is it scared? What’s it feeling? Empathy rises in my chest as I compare my life lessons to its own.

Then I realized that I was anthropomorphizing the little guy. He’s a spider not a human. He’s not sitting there worrying about whether a storm is coming with the wind and how it will affect his web. He’s not worried that he may not get to see the blond at the keyboard through the window again. But I am doing all of those things for him because I am human. It came so easily to me, the ability to get over my fears and find common ground with this creature that at first had seemed so “other”… so scary.

I wonder : If it’s so easy for us to anthropomorphize animals that we fear, why is it so hard for us to see humanity in the people we call “other”?
In the space of three days I had moved from ogling, to awareness, to friendship with a spider, but there are millions of people who go there whole lives treating actual human beings with different skin colors, different sexual orientations, or different IDEAS as less than human. There are millions of people who can’t move past the fear, who can’t see the web, who don’t recognize the common experiences of love and fear – the humanity that we all possess.

I think back to Doug’s comment about how dangerous it can be to anthropomorphize a wild animal and yet people do it every day. And then I think about how not dangerous it is to reach out and extend understanding and friendship to another human being. It’s in us – that ability and desire to connect. We have the inherent ability to remove the fear, find the common ground, and love if we just look. Why can’t we look? Is it a choice to remain blind? Is it a choice to live in fear? Is it a choice that actually diminishes our own humanity? If we can give human qualities to animals that scare us – why can’t we do the same for our brothers and sisters?