A Place Beyond Words
Photo by Dan Meyers
This is going to be a brief post—not because there isn’t plenty to say, but because we once again find ourselves in a place where words are not enough. Instead, I would like to take a moment to discuss choices. From the moment we put our feet on the ground in the morning (which itself is a choice), we move through a series of “choose your own adventure” style decisions that shape the mosaic of our daily lives. In fact, from the day we move from milk to solid foods, choices consume us. Society informs us what some of those crucial choices will be ahead of time—college, marriage, kids, retirement. The board is set, adulthood beckons—answer these questions, and life will be abundant and straightforward. Case Closed.
Only, these choices are a mirage distracting us from the first important decision we will ever make—the decision whether to harbor prejudice against another human.
We cannot pretend that there are degrees of bias (harmful and harmless). Much like a small splinter may seem unobtrusive, we still instinctively know to remove it before it festers. There is no distinction between the secret thread of partiality we choose to cultivate in our hearts and the events of 9/11, the Holocaust, or the murder of George Floyd. The bias that gives us permission to see another group or individual as inferior to us, kicks open the door to acts of atrocity that know no end.
The labels we assign to others are the first roadblocks to compassion and empathy. We cannot choose to turn the suffering of others into white noise that we filter into the background. If the definition of empathy is “your pain in my heart,” then we must do everything we can to alleviate that pain in a way that moves beyond words. It must come from our cells and radiate through all our decisions and all our most private thoughts.
We’re not embroiled in a crisis restricted to one group, one class, one generation. When there is injustice, cruelty, racism, or discrimination of any type—all of humanity suffers. We cannot shut our eyes to it, minimize it, or breathe a sigh of relief that we’re not the target of those who choose to act in hatred against their fellow man.
We must stop questioning a rape victim or battered woman about her choices leading up to the assault. We must stop asking if victims of police brutality have a criminal record. When we choose to ask these questions, we create pathways in our heads and hearts that build degrees of acceptability. There is NEVER a situation that justifies cruelty, abuse, or murder! We all have human rights that shouldn’t have to be enforced by law but should be practiced as a choice by every human.
In the early postwar days of World War II, Martin Niemöller spoke to his own failure to burn down the “harmless” bias in his own heart and the consequences that followed. “First, they came for the socialist, but I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionist, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jew, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” - Martin Niemöller
Where do we go from here? Where do we start? How do we honor the memories of those who can no longer speak for themselves, but who should never be silenced? It comes down to the choices we make from the moment we open our eyes in the morning until we take our last breath in life. What will our choices say about us? What do we want the world to remember about us when we’re gone?