Monday, July 15, 2013

the R's...or, "everyone needs therapy."

One of the things we (theoretically) learn in the process of growing up is the difference between reacting and responding. Many of us don't learn it until we spend time in therapy or serving in some sort of intentional leadership experience. But no matter how we learn it, it's a key part of being a mature adult human being: recognizing our reactions and then choosing how to respond.

Reactivity is a huge problem, though. Either we're not self-aware or other-aware, or we're clouded by something (fear, anger, pain), and when we see things, we act on our reactive assumptions.

For instance:
We see a black male teenager and lock the doors, assuming he's up to no good.
We see a woman in a short skirt and assume she has no self-respect and is "asking for it."
We see a person wearing a clerical collar and launch into a tirade against the evils of the church.
We see someone asking for money and assume they're just going to buy booze, then loudly tell our companion how much money homeless panhandlers "really" make.

In instances when we feel threatened, our reactivity heightens even more. We don't just lock the doors, we follow and then get out of the car. We don't just rant about the church, we throw things through the windows. We don't "just" catcall, we launch legislative efforts to control.

Threats take many forms--the threat of physical harm, the threat of loss-of-power, the threat of having to change our perspective. Whatever the form, our reactions are usually in the same vein: do everything we can to maintain our position, the status quo, the safety of our bodies, minds, neighborhoods, values, histories, worldviews. It doesn't matter if those reactions are irrational, or how they affect others, or even what they say about us. When we are in reactive mode, all that matters is that our status quo is returned.

Add in firearms and there's a recipe for disaster.
But if you are a person with brown skin,  we'll take away your right to life instead. Or if you are a woman, we'll take away your right to health care, insisting you need to be protected from yourself by politicians, health insurance companies, and family members.

So what happens if we respond instead of reacting?

This is where real change happens. Not through following a kid through the neighborhood, picking a fight, then claiming self defense. Not in a court room. Not in a church meeting. Not even in the halls of Congress. Every single one of us needs to figure out what it would mean to respond instead of react--every time. To think before we open our mouths or our car doors or the floodgates of an internet comment.

Only if we figure out how to let the grown-up part of our brain respond will we be able to make any kind of difference. That means that when we see someone who looks different, we don't jump to assumptions but wait a beat, look for the image of God, and open a conversation. When we observe someone making a choice we would not make (but is not harmful to us or others), we recall that our task is not to ensure everyone is the same as I am, but that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. When we are threatened, we look for ways to respond creatively rather than reacting violently.

please note: this post is not about what we do when we see someone obviously engaging in dangerous illegal activity, hurting themselves or another person, etc. Watching someone commit a violent crime, jump off a bridge, break into a store, start a fire, litter, etc, while doing nothing is obviously not okay. Don't try to read this post that way. But also don't assume that what you see isn't colored by your lenses. Remember that video where a white girl was stealing a bike and people offered to help her, while when a black teen did the same people were calling the cops within seconds?

And always, always, we remember that we cannot control other people's reactions or responses. All we can control is how we respond. In other words, we cannot insist that other people behave the way we do if we are to respond to them as human beings. We cannot insist that other people's reactions to us or responses to our actions/words be what we think they should be. We cannot say "I didn't mean it like that" and assume that's going to make it okay.
Can those of us in positions of privilege (whether by virtue of our skin color, our economic status, our social status, our religious tradition, our citizenship...) choose to respond in healthy ways? Can we choose to stand up when others are using their privilege inappropriately? Can we choose to defend the people who do not enjoy the same privileges we do? Can we choose to insist on the full personhood of everyone, regardless of their status, color, or even behavior? Can we choose to take responsibility for ourselves, our words and actions, our reactions and responses, and then choose to act differently when we are called out on bad behavior, perpetuating stereotypes, perpetrating injustice, participating in devaluing of people or creation?

No one deserves to be treated the way many are being treated every day. No one deserves to die because of the neighborhood they live in, the snack they carry, the clothes they wear, the gait of their walk. No one deserves to grow up being taught never to run and always to defer to the person with the lighter skin. No one deserves to be thrown away because they are inconvenient for the rest of us.

Everyone deserves to be seen in all their humanity. Everyone deserves to have the image of God recognized in them. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect. The only way to get there is for all of us to learn to respond rather than react, and to remember that the only person we can control is ourselves--and a little self-control would go a long way.

To the many people insisting that race has nothing to do with Trayvon Martin's death, or that Paula Deen just used a word "they" use about "themselves," or that gender discrimination at work and in legislation is all in our pretty little heads, or that your LGBT friends should be happy with what they've got and stop having "parades of promiscuity," or that cutting food stamps will motivate people to get jobs (and yes, these are all related issues, filed under "privilege") : that's reacting. Reactivity always means either unreflective behavior or some perceived threat. I choose not to believe that any of my (few) readers are unreflective. I believe you are all able and willing to consider history, culture, worldview, politics, etc, when thinking about a situation or issue. SO: What is threatening about the perspective being shared by people of color, by women, by LGBT people, by the poor? What is threatening about the idea that all our fellow human beings deserve exactly the same privileges we enjoy?

Once we can name the real issue, can we respond instead of react, and thereby change the world?

Or, as Jesus says: love your neighbor as yourself.

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