Expand Your Us offers a different way to imagine ourselves and our connections to one another. We live in troubled times, with palpable tension, easy binaries and divisiveness in the air we breathe. Even those of us who recognize that defensiveness is destructive, that binaries destroy, or that our biases shape the way we see others fall into these traps. If we celebrate the dignity of all others, we walk a narrow road of empathy, and the ditches of distrust on either side are large and strangely inviting.
While this is an accurate description of who we are, it is not the full story. We have become instinctively divisive in the way we consume news and engage others in the public sphere, and yet we continue to be good at loving our “us.” Yes, we are often quick to demonize, caricature and misunderstand others; however, given the right circumstances, we are also quick to listen, extending grace to people who don’t deserve it. I call them “free pass” people, because they are the select few who always get the benefit of the doubt. Even though we are stingy with grace or understanding for people with whom we don’t agree, we all know how to care about our free pass people:
We know how to forgive instinctively, before we are asked.
We know how to listen with empathy even when an action seems selfish or hurtful.
We know how to lean in when we want to point a finger in judgment.
We know how to use our power to pull strings for a person who might blow the opportunity.
We know how to be generous to people who haven’t earned it.
We love our tribe even when they are defensive, argue an irrational point, or make selfish choices.
Choosing to extend compassion and understanding to another human being is always a choice. For our free pass people, these choices are easy, even instinctive. By observing these choices, noticing them when they happen, could we become better at intentionally choosing kindness to more people more often? Could we realize we achieve very little when we refuse to access compassion for a large segment of society? Could we widen our circles, extending the mercy and empathy we reserve for our tribe to others? Could we recognize that we are part of the problem when we only value our us?
If we blindly let our instincts decide when we choose compassion, and when we choose to demonize, we miss the opportunity to examine what empathy costs, and how it might heal. Given our public discourse, it is easy to think we are devolving as a society. Perhaps we need to be reminded that we already know how to care about people whose perspectives or choices infuriate us. I have been delighted to realize that many of us are, in fact, expanding our us at an astonishing pace.
For instance, I see transformative reform in the way old divides are being erased through collaboration and resistance. The last few years have witnessed the exposure of widespread injustice, but we are also witnessing game-changing reforms. Black Lives Matter brought to light deep patterns of inequity in criminal justice and legal systems. Brutality is not new, it is simply now exposed in the public sphere, and this exposure necessitated change. While it is true that many deny injustice exists, even more law enforcement agencies are hard at work improving their relationships with ALL the communities they serve. In fact, systems are reforming: from body cams, to prosecutors who examine their relationship to police and defendants, to engaging in restorative justice, to de-escalation training, to mental health awareness, to reforming unjust laws, to judges working with communities for fair sentencing, justice is on the move because we are listening to each other.
Similarly, the #metoo movement has exposed deep patterns of misogyny in almost every industry. These problems are not new, they are simply coming to light in the public sphere. Millions are teaching us that objectifying women in any way has consequences; there is no such thing as innocent locker room talk. While some men belittle this abuse, many have listened and responded by examining their potential influence to improve the way we speak about and relate to each other. Because of brave women and thoughtful men, behavioral norms are changing. Children are taught differently, coaches coach differently, new staff orientations occur differently and mentors lead differently. We are learning to honor one another.
This notion of expanding our us instead of demonizing those who dare highlight problems plaguing society is catching on. In Nashville, a school that was chronically labeled as troubled is now being celebrated as a leader in forming community partnerships; across the nation educators have noticed the ways they collaborate with the city, families, teachers and students to reform approaches to education. In fact, last week, the Director of Metro Nashville Public Schools and a Nashville Precinct Commander visited Pearl-Cohn, listening and partnering with school Principal Dr. Sonia Stewart, who replaces despair with hope and agency every day. I am encouraged that our city and state officials are paying attention to our resilient students and the leaders who champion their voices! This week, the State of Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education, Dr. Candace McQueen, publicly stated that resisting systems based on violence and fear is an important part of the educational process. She therefore recommends that no student be penalized for participating in next week’s #nationalschoolwalkout protest. Dr. McQueen understands that we can find hopeful paths forward when we listen to each other rather than demonizing any act of resistance.
Imagine how interconnected our society would be if we started to treat more people the way we usually treat our ‘free pass’ people. What are the costs of expanding our “us”, so that we give others the benefit of the doubt, committing to listen, seek understanding, and extend compassion more regularly? Granted, it might cost us our precious binaries, our approaches to others as Good or Bad. It might cost us the chance to judge before we listen, and it will surely lower the number of people we ignore or even loathe. I suspect that replacing judgment with generous curiosity will not just improve our connections to others, it might make hopeful peacemakers out of us all.