Lately, I’ve been struggling with self-righteousness – my own. There are a couple of recent events that have provoked these inner struggles.
A few weeks ago, I attended an event with my best friend at a church in Dallas that featured John Pavlovitz, a pastor from Wake Forest, North Carolina. Carolyn and I have followed Pavlovitz’s social media posts and blog, Stuff that Needs to Be Said, for several years, and we were excited to hear him speak. The event proved to be enlightening on many levels.
As expected, Pavlovitz’s words were inspirational and insightful. But some of the comments and questions from the audience proved to be just as thought-provoking. Two comments – one from an African American woman and another from a young woman from the LBGTQ community struck a chord with me. Both women spoke to how exhausting it is to try to “explain” to inquiring well-meaning, white heterosexuals who want to help what it is like to be black or LBGTQ. Their message was – start talking among yourselves and figure out how to change the societal structures that continue to discriminate against marginalized populations. Ouch. They were speaking to me.
In an attempt to be more understanding and have “difficult conversations,” I’ve been peppering my friends with questions – lots of questions. Not long ago (over several glasses of wine), I asked my friend Jodie about his life growing up as a black man, and he spent several hours answering my questions. I always enjoy my conversations with Jodie and appreciate his willingness to engage with me. I also believe it is important to have these conversations, but the exchange at the Pavolitz event made me wonder if I am “exhausting” my friends?
Just prior to the Pavolitz event, I finished reading Rising Strong by Brene Brown. I’m a latecomer to hopping on board the “Brene train.” I somehow missed when her first TED talk went viral in 2013 (or I just wasn’t paying attention). The first book of hers that I read was Braving the Wilderness after seeing her interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. As a result, I’ve now read most of her books out of order from how they were published, with Rising Strong being the last one I read.
Not long after I saw To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway in July, I watched a clip of Jeff Daniels on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, in which Daniels said the play is a “slap in the face to white liberals.” While I had a visceral reaction to watching Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of one of my favorite books, reading Rising Strong was a “sucker punch” to my gut. It forced me to confront the uncomfortable truth about my own self-righteousness. And, I have perfected self-righteousness.
When I was in junior high and high school, I was an unwavering self-righteous Christian. While some of the false stories I had inherited made me uncomfortable, I wasn’t one to dispute them. Instead, I nauseatingly took up the spiritual judgment banner, a trait that I had learned from the church my family attended when I was in elementary school.
After I started my career, I had the good fortune to work for one of the premier national leaders in my field. That afforded me the incredible opportunity to be exposed to the latest research and science. Consequently, I became a self-righteous disciple of evidence-based injury and violence prevention strategies and often (I’m ashamed to say) “shamed” my colleagues who were not “as smart as me” or more correctly, had not had the privilege of the same opportunities that I had.
And of course, I have sharpened my self-righteous liberalism since 2016. I have become more removed (by my own choice) from people with political beliefs that contrast mine because of their hurtful comments directed at me. I have allowed their behavior to cause me to judge them as uncaring, racists. I have painted them with the same brush as the Trump supporters I see in the news at white supremacy rallies.
I’m not shifting blame for my own shameful thoughts away from me. My self-righteous judgmental trait was learned early and has lingered far too long. I’m finally embarking on the hard journey of “unlearning” that ingrained characteristic. Frankly, I’m tired of feeling pissed off and resentful. I want to be curious about those feelings as Brene Brown recommends in Rising Strong, and work on how I can be a better person when others aren’t. But just as I commit to doing better, I learn of new tweets or new comments from the current President of the United States that I find abhorrent. This week’s sickening, soul crushing moment came when my news feed was bombarded with a fake video of Trump killing journalists and political opponents. The video was shown at a conference hosted by his supporters at his Miami resort. It was disgusting.
Remaining positive is Just. So. Hard. If I’m looking for a silver lining, I guess it is that these days I have many, many, many opportunities to do my part to shift the negativity.
One of those opportunities presented itself tonight. As I drove home from work, I saw a group of people gathered around the perimeter of the American Airlines Center. Then, I noticed the red “Make America Great Again, Trump 2020” t-shirts. The next thing I caught sight of was a large sign that read “Fuck Your Feelings.” My immediate feeling was the all too familiar fear I’ve come to know when I’m confronted with people wearing MAGA attire. Yes, I have real fear because I’ve watched too many stories about innocent people being gunned down in the name of “making America great again. That fear triggers physical reactions. My pulse quickened. I felt my chest tighten and the bile roil in my stomach. When I pulled into my parking garage a few feet away, my legs and hands were shaking. I raced into my apartment. I wanted to close my blinds, turn the volume up on a playlist, and bury beneath the comfort of my bed.
But, I didn’t.
When my breathing returned to normal after a brief meditation exercise, I walked outside toward American Airlines Center. I walked past the “Fuck Your Feelings” sign, until I reached a couple of women sitting in lawn chairs – one was older; one was a teenager. Both were wearing MAGA hats and t-shirts with multiple Trump political buttons. I stopped in front of them and asked them if I could ask them a question. “Yes,” they replied in unison.
“What is it that you like about our current President?”
Then, I listened to them for one full hour. The only time I said anything during that hour was to ask clarifying questions. I just listened. They never asked for my thoughts or opinion. They talked and I listened. My best friend is always encouraging me to listen “to learn,” not to “refute or defend.” So, that’s what I did. As we talked, other Trump supporters gathered around us and began talking.
This is what I heard.
“Trump does what he says he’s going to do.”
“The media should report just the facts, not try to convince people to vote for Democrats.”
“We need someone who governs based on facts, not emotions. This isn’t about feelings.”
“Of course, Trump tried to ‘grab them by the pussy’ because that’s just the way men are.”
“There’s not right and left – there’s right and wrong.”
“God told me to vote for Trump.”
“It’s capitalism or communism. Socialism leads to communism. Just look at Venezuela.”
Democrats are behaving like Nazis.”
“Hillary Clinton said on video that she tried to get Russia to help her win the election. There’s no video of Trump saying that.”
“Trump is trying to protect us from the illegal aliens who are coming to our country to murder us.”
“We need to take care of and protect the people who are born here.”
“There’s nothing you can do about a crazy person that gets a gun and shoots people. Taking away our guns doesn’t solve that problem. Besides the data shows that more people die from knife wounds.” At this point I did ask for the source of the data and was told “just look at police reports, and they show that more people die from stabbing.” I didn’t tell them that I had looked at police reports, and that’s not what they show.
“Trump isn’t racist. How could he be? He dated a black woman.”
The older woman told me about being in prison three times, and that we need prison reform. She said that not everyone should receive the same level of healthcare. I told her that I work in healthcare and was interested in hearing more about her thoughts on that. She responded by saying that she was on Medicaid for many years and described numerous medical procedures that she had during that time. She said she currently has employee insurance because she now has a job with an oil company as a roustabout, but she never goes to the doctor. “People who can pay for healthcare should get better healthcare,” she said. Confused, I asked her if she had gotten good healthcare when she was on Medicaid and had the medical procedures? “Yes,” she replied.
After she said Trump is trying to protect us from the illegal aliens who are coming to our country to murder us, she mentioned that she had written letters to help a Mexican immigrant who had come to the U.S. “illegally” try to stay in our country “because he has a job and is trying to take care of his family.”
As we were talking, a driver in a car drove by us and yelled insults at the Trump supporters. “That’s so typical of socialists,” she said.
“Can I ask you a question?"” the teenager asked. “Do you support Trump?”
“No,” I replied.
“Are you a Hillary supporter?” she asked.
“I’m just here to try to learn and understand,” I replied.
The older woman looked at the teenager and said, “I knew she wasn’t a Trump supporter when she stopped to talk to us. But I appreciate her listening to us.”
Then she looked at me and said, “You’re the first person who has listened to us. You know, I’m in favor of building the wall to protect our border, but I think we need to spend more time tearing down the wall that divides us in this country.”
After an hour of listening to someone with whom I disagree with on so many levels, I found a nugget of agreement. As I walked away, I said, “Try to stay warm tonight.” I sincerely meant it.
When I related this story later to my husband, he asked, “So, what did you learn?”
This is what I learned.
Not one of the individuals that I talked to lived in Dallas. They had all driven hundred of miles to sleep on the concrete sidewalk outside the AAC for a chance to see Donald Trump. They were passionate in their beliefs and convictions. Did I feel intellectually superior to them? I wish I could report that I didn’t, but that’s not true. Self-righteous habits take time to unlearn, and I need more of it. But, I learned that shaming people and making them feel inferior is not the way to start or have a conversation.
I recently had a conversation with my daughter where I said I’m just trying to become a better version of myself. There was nothing I could say that was going to change the minds of the individuals outside the AAC. But perhaps they will remember our time together and be more willing to engage respectfully with someone with whom they have different viewpoints sometime in the future.
I can only hope. I can’t change the thoughts and behaviors of others, but I can control my own.
Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world.
All things break. And all things can be mended.
Not with time, as they say, but with intention.
So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally.
The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.