I honestly think I had one of the busiest weeks of my life, and yesterday, as I reflected over the varied activities and attempted to figure out what my takeaways were from all of it, I realized that compassion is hard work. But it is so worth it.
I am working on a certification as a Compassionate Integrity trainer. Basically, it is a secular ethics approach to cultivating personal, social and environmental flourishing. Well, of course, you know what that means right? It means that opportunity after opportunity comes up to exercise compassion!
So, this happened!
(What exactly is going on with my hair? But I digress…..)
My precious friend, Leanne, the executive director of Compassionate Atlanta, asked me to be in a play about compassion for their annual fundraiser. I would go to the ends of the earth for her, so of course, I acquiesced. Joyfully.
The playwright wrote the skit and we were to show up early the day of the fundraiser and just rehearse once or twice. Well, given how busy I had been, I did not read the entire script and my brain did not register who would be in the play.
Of course, I was late to rehearsal and there was only one spot on the stage – next to the guy in uniform! Well, if you know me, you know that cops are among my least favorite people on the planet.
I am so sorry if I offend you, but it is true.
So, what do I do? I protest. This man gave me the most disarming smile and promised he would not bite!
First, let me defend my bias against cops. I want to continue to not like cops. I don’t trust them. I think of all the bad done in the world by cops. I think of abuse of power. I think of black bodies lying in the street shot by cops. I feel my breath constrict when I think of cops.
I enjoy my distaste of cops!
And I want to desperately hold on to my abhorrence of cops but if, just if I could experience the humanity of one, then I must stop believing my own lie, right?
Why did he have to be so nice? And why was his story so compelling?
This man, this cop, Lou Dekmar, is the chief of police of LaGrange, Georgia. He discovered that there was a lot of racial tension in the town and looked into it and got to the root of it. Almost 80 years ago, a black man was lynched in the most brutal way and not afforded police protection.
Guys, this cop made a public apology on behalf of his department. Below is a video of it. Please watch it. It is truly remarkable.
The NAACP and a judge and others got involved and now, this is what this cop is known for – his apology to the community!
I was struck by his courage and his humanity.
It is easy for me to see injustices. Very easy. I am an immigrant, a black woman. I can spot an injustice a mile away. Not everyone can.
Any time I see someone wrestling with their humanity, to do the right thing, I am in awe. It takes such depth of courage to stand up for the right thing and speak truth to power. For those whose conditioning is not to see the suffering of others, I appreciate when they do the heavy lifting to see such suffering.
However, as courageous as this cop is, he is not alone.
Throughout this country, daily, folks are discovering that their work is a ripe place to speak truth to power to create change. Folks are finding creative, non-traditional ways to deliver justice into their communities. People are discovering that justice is in the power of each person’s hands.
Change is necessary in these times we live in. And we have to prod others to be part of the change that we want to see. This cop is a fine example.
Lou, the cop, and I talked and yes, our lives are totally different, but he is a decent, hardworking man who just wants to do the right thing. He is comfortable with change and stirring the pot. I realized that he is an exceptional leader. We talked, we laughed, and he teased me because he said he did not like lawyers.
We all laughed a lot. My other co-thespians on the stage were equally delightful and kind-hearted. Hussein, a refugee from Somalia, started a radio station here in Atlanta so that his community could listen to the radio. Feroza (sigh), the most beautiful Muslim trans woman whose parents are from India stole the show. And a theater director, Heidi, from 7 Stages Theater talked about her work with suicidal kids. I honor each of these folks and their work.
Here is the thing I think of when I reflect back on that night: I was given a cosmic opportunity to see the virtue and humanity in another human being in spite of my personal bias with his job.
That is a huge win. For me.
I still think that there are many cops out there that abuse power and may even shoot innocent people of color. I still think that there is a racist element in the culture of many police departments. I still think that most police departments are engineered by “power over” concepts.
Is this the majority of police? I truly have no idea. I hope not.
Yet, I never want to hear of a cop being shot in the line of duty. I never want to hear of the loss of life or limb of someone who is serving the community in that capacity. I also do not want to live in a community that has no working police system. Their lives are valuable and there is a need for them as much as I think there is a need for a huge culture shift within the police community.
So, this encounter helped me. I get to visit my biases and untangle them – with compassion.
My job is to loosen up an unfair bias against an entire segment of people.
As I thought about the people I admire and how they do what they do with such grace and steely reserve, I recognize their ability to hold space for deep compassion. They are aware of paradoxes and they continue to make progress. I think of the work of Bryan Stevenson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day – these people were/are not living in fairy tale worlds. No. They are deep in the muck and mire of daily life and they seek justice in all they do.
Can I be like that? At least on this issue? I will continue to work on it.
Beloveds, to discover your capacity to contribute to justice in the world, you have to hold on to your compassion in the face of external opposition, conflict within, not knowing everything, not even knowing if you are right and knowing that others don’t want to hear what you have to say. This is what compassionate looks like.
Compassion is not easy. Often, folks think of compassion as empathy. Get clear on the difference between sympathy, empathy and compassion.
The root word in compassion means “to suffer together with.”
There is a continuum and it is always key to know where you land.
- Sympathy means to “feel pity for.”
- Empathy means to “identify with, or understand the thoughts, feelings and emotional state of another.
- Compassion means “concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others” and taking action to alleviate that suffering.
Too often, especially when it comes to managing human difference (racism, gender inequality, homophobia, xenophobia) we only really experience sympathy. We feel pity for those that are suffering but it ends there.
Empathy requires a time investment to know the story of others, or, if you have had a similar experience, you are able to open up to the suffering of another. One way or the other, that person’s story becomes your own.
If we want to be agents of justice, we must be compassionate to the suffering of others around us and take action to alleviate that suffering. Then we have been participants in justice.
This is why you cannot be silent when there is injustice around you. You must speak on behalf of those who cannot.
This man, Lou Dekmar, in his work, has found a way to truly connect with justice and deliver it in this act of his.
Me? I get to sit here and really examine why I don’t like cops and is that fair. If I don’t do that, I get to be self-righteous in my bias and deny myself the benefit of knowing some cool people. I get to hold on to my blind spots. I get to not grow.
The opportunity to untangle my bias is a huge gift. I will be opening this present.
What would it look like in your work if you became an agent of justice? What would it look like if you untangled your biases?
Leave a comment and let me know. I want to hear about it.
*Note that my use of the term “bias” is not in the same context as implicit and explicit racial bias which is a defined psychological term.