In recent weeks I’ve been hit with various experiences that have left me thinking about what it is going to take to create a world that is more just and equitable for everyone. I posted a reflection about my experience last week in facilitating a workshop for prison inmates. Someone replied that “those animals deserved to be in prison,” and then dared me to try living with them.
A few weeks ago some of my family members began posting hateful, homophobic and dehumanizing posts about the caravan of asylum-seekers that made their way from Honduras to Tijuana in order to request asylum from the U.S. government at the Tijuana/San Ysidro port of entry. Many of these family members themselves are immigrants seeking a more permanent status in the United States. I couldn’t understand their rhetoric, much of it very similar to the anti-immigrant rhetoric used in the United States. How could migrants dehumanize other migrants? How could people sharing in the same plight trample on the human rights of others?
My daughter who is Afro-Latina listened to one of her co-workers discuss why she would never be able to bring a dark or black baby home. I’m not sure what made her think it was okay to express these ideas to my daughter. Another co-worker, when asked if she’d ever date a black guy, paused and quickly responded she just “wasn’t attracted to them.” I can’t imagine all the wounds that were triggered in my daughter. And no matter what I said to console her, what she heard had already harmed her. Those ideas seep deep down into the subconscious, even when you try to insulate yourself from them, and tear away at your self-worth.
Just yesterday, I was invited to an event by a family member I have not spoken to in a while. She has very ant-immigrant ideas and is not a supporter of gay rights. She is married to and has children with someone who came to the United States as an undocumented migrant. She also claims that she has many friends and family members that are gay. She says that her political views Are separate from the relationship she carries with people who are gay or undocumented. But it is very difficult for me to reconcile how she can love and care for people and have ideas and vote in ways that impact them negatively. I don’t know how to navigate the pain and confusion that invokes in me. I don’t want to alienate myself from family members who do not have the same beliefs of compassion and inclusion that I do, but it’s also difficult to have a relationship with someone with whom I can’t show up as my full self. As I’m sure it is also difficult for them.
In the instance of the person that left such a dehumanizing comment about prison inmates on my post, I decided to erase his comment and block him from accessing my account. In the case of my family members, I had to speak truthfully to them, and let them know that I was an ally to both the migrant and refugee community as well as the gay community. I told them that my home was open to friends and activists from these communities in the same manner it has been open to my family – to support and serve through love and inclusion. I invited them to join me In the volunteer work I do to meet folks in these communities and listen to their stories. But I received no response.
When I spoke with my truth, I wasn’t speaking with the intent to change their minds. In this polarized political climate we are living across the globe, I have seen that everyone’s got their heels dug pretty deeply into the sand. I also understand the fear-mongering rhetoric used strategically by the media to create division and “othering” among groups fighting for access to the same Benefits and resources. This is what happens when propaganda is used to convince the working poor, and even the middle class, to blame a subset of the working poor for the fact they’re all poor and / or struggling instead of realizing the reason they are all struggling is because of income inequality, price inflation, theft and privatization of natural resources, in combination with wage exploitation and stagnation. But the existence of another poor person is not why people are poor.
I spoke up because I have to be able to look at myself in the mirror and know that I am not staying silent in the face of injustice and hate. I cannot, I refuse to operate under the same fear that drives people to alienate and hate others. I have to speak my truth for the sake of love. Love for my family and love for the those who are marginalized and suffering.
There is a resolve and inner power that grows inside of me when I speak my truth with compassion and love. My healing journey has led me to a place where I feel deep love for people, whether it is the students, the prisoners, the migrants, or anyone else I encounter or serve. That kind of love I feel looks like empathy for their struggles, solidarity for their plight, but most importantly a deep sense of wanting the best for them. It is the drive within me to share in and encourage the self-realization of another person. It feels like wanting to be part of uplifting and inspiring others to believe in a more beautiful life for themselves and creating spaces where we can find healing together through our stories and lessons.
When I refer to love, I don’t refer to the sentimental and anemic manifestation of love driven by guilt or lack of inner-power. At its root, love is the drive for unity of the separated, connection of the isolated and creation of the destroyed. Love in a sense is the drive to connect and make whole that which has become or appears fragmented. It is expansive, all-encompassing and based on the well-being of the individual as a part of the whole. When you can see yourself in others, you begin to operate from a level of consciousness that allows you to see and feel the inextricable intertwined humanity in all of us.
Will Smith was recently asked how he defines love. In response, he created a short video that defines love as follows:
“At its core, love is help. Everybody is having a hard time, so it’s really devotion to their struggle. It’s when you’re committed to helping somebody with their life. Helping someone to suffer less. Helping them to manage their minds and their emotions. It’s a deep desire for our loved one’s growth and their blossoming and their all around well-being. When you love someone, you want them to feel good and you want them to feel happy. You want to see them succeed in life. Love really demands an in-depth understanding of their hopes and dreams and fears and their needs and trauma. Love is giving and sharing our gifts for the purpose of nurturing and empowering them and helping them to create their greatest joys.”
This is such a beautiful and powerful definition of love. Our goal must be to make the love we feel so expansive and inclusive, that we feel like this for every person we encounter, especially those filled with so much pain and hate.
In my reflection about the healing work I engage in, in prison, I wrote about Dan, a prison inmate that looks like an “original veterano” and has the essence of a kind and mischievous, but stern, “abuelo.” He made me laugh so much.
On the third day of the workshops he told me he had been working in the kitchen that morning. Sorting apples and other fruits into various bins. As he was rolling the apples into bins, it dawned on him he had never given an apple to a teacher. He said, “teachers didn’t like me, you know. I was a little troublemaker and I missed a lot of school, so when they saw me, they’d immediately send me to the principle’s office.” He then said, “but you’re the first teacher I want to give an apple to.” He gestured with his index finger for me to wait and with his half gangsta-lean, half grandpa-limp, he walked with a little pep toward where he had sat his things down. He came back toward me holding an apple in his hand, proud and gleaming.
This gesture brought tears to my eyes. Not because it was a gift to me, but because I was seeing in Dan the young kid who had been alienated and shunned from school. Who was labeled a trouble maker from a young age. Whose dark skin and accent made him the “other.” His path could have been different if just one teacher, one adult, would have seen him. Seen his worth – his caring, humorous and creative essence.
We can’t just love our students when they are behaving and turning in their assignments. We gotta love them when they are deeply pained and broken, too. Our most misbehaved children, the ones with excessive absences and zeros in the grade book, are the ones who feel the most hurt, broken and marginalized. It’s hard to get them to show up, and when they do, they often times find themselves being shamed and berated by teachers.
We have to love people despite their hurt and trauma. We don’t have to humiliate them or make them feel inferior in order to hold them to higher expectations or hold them accountable for their actions. There is a magic that occurs when we give a person just enough comfort to be themselves. When we practice empathy, we allow space for another to be more of themselves and fulfill the highest version of themselves.
So where was I going with this? There is nothing I can say to convince people to be more empathic or caring. No logical argument or explanation to show them why migrants or prisoners or disruptive students or homeless folks deserve better. People who are deeply prejudice and racist have an emotional commitment to ignorance. Usually that is driven by their own pain and anger. All I can do is speak up when I see hate and organize and create with folks who are actively working to do good and lessen the suffering of others. It is only in the opening of our hearts that we are able to feel the suffering of others and be moved to do better by them. We are trapped in an ideology of borders, and walls, and scarcity, and competition. Many don’t seem to be able to transcend these limitations. The marginalized are marginalized more, the poor are blamed more and those with deep traumas are punished more. We are trapped in a systemic maze that keeps us separated and blaming each other for our struggles, rather than building capacity and collaborating to uplift each other. The world and our conditions in it demands that we engage with solidarity and cooperation.
I’m not here to save the world. I am here to help it heal with my compassion and actions rooted in love. We must break all the old paradigms and beliefs that keeps us tied to the illusion that we are separate, and this work must be done from within. We cannot force someone to see what they have not experienced within. “If an egg is broken by outside force, life ends. If broken by inside force, life begins.” -Buddha Great things always begin from inside. It is the deep love that we hold for another person that allows them to feel safe enough to open up. A rose, when embraced long enough by the warmth of the sun, has no other choice but to unclench its bud and let the light in.
I cannot be so arrogant as to believe that I can control when and how someone will open their hearts. I can only do my own work by creating in me that which I want to see magnified in the world. It is difficult, I must confess, to see those that are hurt, hurt others, especially people in power such correctional officers, teachers, social workers, psychologists, and cops working with very vulnerable populations. We project our wounds on to others, particularly those whose stories and experiences mirror our own.
I am reminded of wise words written by Dr. Jaiya John, “You cannot punish (or force) a person into healing and growth. Only love can do that.” This does not mean we are not held accountable for our actions, but it does mean that we are called upon to restore the harm we have caused through love – the kind that disintegrates the illusion of separateness. When you can no longer feel a difference between you and the other person.
“The alchemist is one who transforms all energies into higher frequencies of light and love. They are the bringers of a new dawn, transmuting the old paradigms into a higher intelligence and order. They act solely for the highest good of all. Love is the only master they answer to.”