Easy to Be Hard

“How can people be so heartless,
How can people be so cruel. . .
Especially people who care about strangers, Who care about evil and social injustice?
Do you only care about the bleeding crowd?
How about a needing friend, I need a friend.”
-Three Dog Night

Earlier this month I received an email from someone who said that while he has sometimes disagreed strongly with my writings, he was contacting me to let me know that he really liked something I had sent out right before Christmas. He went on to say, “a problem is that progressives simply do not do enough to support each other” and that we need “a movement of applauding publicly each others’ best ideas and postings.”

This really struck a chord with me since I made-and I think so far have kept-one new year’s resolution: to try very hard to express any strong feelings or disagreements I may have with fellow progressives in as respectful and non-antagonistic a way as possible.

This is not a new idea for me. I’ve written in the past in these columns about how the personal is political, that the way in which we treat other people individually is related to how successful we will be at bringing about fundamental social change.

But it’s much easier to write in the abstract, in a column, than when someone harshly attacks you-or it feels like you’re being harshly attacked. I will be the first one to admit that, when that has happened, I have sometimes responded in a way which is more heat than light. I have responded with the intention of trying to put down or silence the other person. I don’t think it happens too often, but I know it happens.

I have done this even though I have believed for a very long time that it is essential, that it is a strategic necessity, that we build a new culture, a new way of living and working that can help us keep the faith and attract others to our movement by that example.

In my book, Future Hope, A Winning Strategy for a Just Society, I put it like this:

“A new movement must learn from the best of the women’s movement and reject the competitive, hierarchical and self-centered styles of leadership that far too many men and some, mainly white middle- and upper-class, women often display. We need to learn how to work in a collective and cooperative way, a way which is distinctly different than the aggressive, me-first culture that is dominant in U.S.
society today. We need to show by example, by the way the movement functions, that we have grown and learned beyond the old, destructive patterns of personal interaction. When one of us has a serious personal problem, an injury, an illness, a death in the family, or emotional distress, others must be there to provide support and assistance. We must be known not just for our good ideas about how to re-make society and our work on issues but by the way we interact with each other and with other people on personal levels.”

This doesn’t mean that we should avoid discussion of sharp differences, or allow sloppy  organizational practices or work styles to go on without addressing them. I have learned enough in my 55 years to know that sweeping these kinds of things under the rug always eventually makes things worse.

But we need to make every effort to be both honest and sensitive, personally respectful of those with whom we have disagreements or serious problems. We must heed the words of great spiritual teachers like Chief Yellow Hawk who asked for “strength not to be greater than my brother or sister but to fight my greatest enemy, myself.”

There is an Ojibway prayer that I carry around in my wallet which, every time I read it, helps me to remember what this work is ultimately all about. As importantly, it has the effect of reminding me about the way that, intellectually, I know I should be interacting with others:

Look at our brokenness.
We know that in all creation
Only the human family
Has strayed from the Sacred Way.
We know that we are the ones
Who are divided
And we are the ones
Who must come back together
To walk the Sacred Way.
Sacred One,
Teach us love, compassion and honor
That we may heal the earth
And heal each other.