When I first read about the mass murder in Orlando, I couldn’t really take in the full weight of the tragedy. My heart skipped past the unbearable sadness, and went right to anger — a more comfortable place to dwell.
I felt fury at the idiot fundamentalism that led to the murder of 49 people because of who they love, and that many in the LGBT community have been brutally reminded that in spite of progress, they still have reason to fear for their safety. I thought about the fact that Congress has still, after so many deaths, yet to ban semi-automatic weapons. And I got preemptively pissed at anyone who would try to paint all Muslims as guilty by association for this horrible act.
Then I remembered: God, the loss. My heart aches with it. I’ve been reading the Facebook posts of my LGBT friends who are still reeling with the refrain, "It could have been me. It could have been the one I love.” The people who lost loved ones — they are no different than any of us, and this horrible thing happened to them, and now they have to cope with it.
I’ve thought, as I have done after every mass shooting, about my almost 2-year-old son. It’s hard to even type that, much less complete the thought. Yep, the anger is easier.
And anger, like sadness, has its place. It gives us the energy and strength to stand up and say “no more.” It fuels efforts to combat prejudice and make us safer from gun violence.
But when anger blots out other emotions, it can start to narrow the lens through which we view not just our opponents, but the whole world. It can curb our ability to make change. And it can cause us to lose sight of an essential truth in the middle of everything: we feel sad because, without necessarily knowing them, we love those people who died in Orlando.
That’s the thing about humanity — just as we are capable of hating strangers, we’re also capable of loving them.
It's this. This is the one thing that holds me together tragic shooting after tragic shooting. Bombing after bombing. Rape after rape. Injustice after injustice. It's not the anger, or the sadness. It's the love. It's feeling how my anger and sadness are an expression of love, and that your anger and sadness are an expression of love, and that this is what binds us all together, in the midst of violence.
Omar Mateen couldn’t see the humanity in the people he killed, because of the ways they were different from him, and in spite of the ways they were the same. That same dynamic has been playing out in our political discourse over the last decade, and it’s tearing us apart.
Compassion and respect across difference is one of those things that sounds great, but is hard to live by. It’s hard for me to hear Trump use the Orlando shooting as a talking point in his campaign to ban Muslims in the US, without wanting to punch him in the throat. And yet. How can I effectively promote greater understanding across differences if I can’t extend respect and acceptance towards people I disagree with?
When I worked at an advocacy organization, we often found ourselves in the position of trying to influence policymakers who on most issues sat on the other end of the political spectrum. I know documentary filmmakers, aiming to shift a cultural conversation, who found they needed to interview someone with a wildly different world view. So how do you begin to build that relationship of collaboration and trust, if until now that person has held the role of enemy?
I’ve also seen, in myself, with colleagues and with clients, how relatively small differences can affect our ability to collaborate with people we generally agree with on the big political questions. I’ve seen differences of opinion on strategy undermine potentially high impact coalitions. Sometimes the differences are more personal: How do I constructively contribute to a working relationship with someone whose work ethic I don’t trust? Or with someone who, sometimes stubbornly, makes the same mistakes over and over?
I believe the answer to all of this starts with unconditional respect. In my experience, I am better off when I have the capacity to vehemently disagree with someone, but still look them in the eye and connect with a sense of our shared humanity. I become better at listening to and understanding their point of view, which better grounds my perspective and sense of what's true. I'm more able to connect with them, and therefore more likely to be heard myself. I am also, perhaps most remarkably, more at ease with myself, because when I don't reduce my "opponents" to a caricature, I also give myself room to be more than just a collection of opinions.
In fact, I wonder how we would all be better off. What becomes possible in a society that can more steadily navigate the times when we must condemn someone's words or actions, while maintaining an unwavering value for human dignity?
Maybe we shoot each other a little less?
So how do we realize more unconditional respect in our daily lives? We all sometimes have a hard time seeing, accepting and respecting — even loving — people for who they are. And so we all have the capacity to move the needle towards greater acceptance of difference.
Here are a few things to try.
Find your limit of tolerance, aka, your edge. Who makes you go all throat-punchy? What kinds of people stiffen your neck, or induce eye rolling? Who do you tune out? Who do you have trouble looking in the eye? Whose voice makes you grit your teeth? Maybe it's a lightning rod politician like Trump. Maybe it’s your uncle, or your cubicle mate who talks with his mouth full. Maybe it’s a type of person, or a community of people.
Don’t overshoot your edge. You've got to be able to find that voice inside that says, "I really would like to be more accepting of this person." If you can’t do that, pick someone else.
Don’t judge your edge. It’s not going to do any good to wish it was further along, or mentally compare it to someone else’s perceived edge. Your edge is your edge, and we’ve all got one (or two, or three). Accept it for exactly where and what it is, and embrace it as a sign of your humanity.
- Step beyond black and white thinking. When you notice yourself judging another person, take a deep breath, and say to yourself, “That person has their reasons. I may not agree with or even understand those reasons, but they’ve got them.”
This doesn't mean giving up your voice in choosing what's right and wrong for you. Nor does it mean you are obligated to be everyone's friend. This is about creating more mental space for people who choose or act differently than you would. It's also about creating a greater sense of ease and acceptance around the natural complexity and diversity we are bound to encounter in life.
- Get to know your motivations for judging others. In my experience, judgment of others is a kind of self-defense of the pysche. If I'm giving someone the side-eye, it usually means that there is something about that person that a part of me finds threatening, and I'm using judgment as a shield. But I very rarely need that shield, and when I start to catch on to what I'm up to, I get to make better, less fear-driven, choices.
Here are some questions to ask yourself, the next time you notice judgment creeping in:
- What is my anger and judgment protecting me from? What am I afraid would happen if I let it go?
- What vulnerabilities do I subtly repress or forbid in myself, for fear of being like those I judge? How has hardening towards others led me to harden towards myself?
- What emotions are being masked by my judgment and fear? Can I allow myself to experience and accept those emotions right now?
So what do you think? Do you think it’s possible to cultivate unconditional respect? Is it even a worthy goal? What supports you in cultivating respect for others, and even love? What makes it hard? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.