How can I say this? When you have a day like January 6, 2021 in the United States, it’s hard to know what to say. It left many of us speechless, then enraged, mortified, and confused. When societal norms are violated in such a violent manner, words often escape us. And then we become unable to see the people we feel have violated us as our fellow human beings. We also can refuse to acknowledge those who do the right thing after long doing what we’ve felt is the wrong thing.
Our question this episode: how can we keep our hearts and minds open when we feel cynical about another person’s sincerity?
Welcome to episode 76 of How Can I Say This…, where we look to build connection and community through courageous conversations. I’m your host, Beth Buelow. Thanks for joining me!
This entire episode comes from my processing of the past 48 hours. As the events of Wednesday unfolded, I stared with horror at the images of people storming the United States Capital. I tried to keep up with the news while I also tried to have a productive workday. Every time it seemed it couldn’t get much worse, it did. I felt a bit numb to it most of the day, as it all seemed surreal, as I sat working in my warm and quiet house, 700 miles from the capital.
But then, as various elected officials started responding, I found my rage. My frustration boiled over as I heard them issue calls for calm and unity, when all they’d ever done to that point was incite and divide us. My husband and I talked about it, and I told him I felt their words meant nothing. They were negated by their past actions. I was unmoved by any olive branches they were extending. It was too little, too late.
My husband, who shares my values and political views, had a much more tempered approach. I think it comes from several years of having a mediation and prayer practice that has gifted him with a balanced perspective on the challenges of life. Anyway, he said that we should accept the gestures of these politicians as a step in the right direction. I was resistant. I responded that their attempts to put out the fire that they had started were self-serving and sincere only in their desire to keep their legacy from being further tarnished. In short, I wasn’t having any of it.
This highlights a challenge I have that I believe we all experience: we have long memories when it comes to holding on to grudges or feelings of being wronged when those feelings are connected to someone we were supposed to be able to trust. We should be able to trust our parents, our siblings, our partners, our children, and yes, even our elected officials, who take an oath to serve and protect the people. When that trust is broken, it’s a huge undertaking to win it back. One good deed isn’t going to do it. Even 10 good deeds might not do it.
And yet. I think of an idea I first heard from the writer Anne Lamott. She shared, not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.
I think that was part of my husband’s point: there’s no use in digging in my heels and refusing to acknowledge someone’s attempt to right a wrong, because that only creates more animosity in me. It doesn’t affect the other person at all, at least not in this case, because they don’t know me and probably never will. And I don’t think this is actually about forgiveness, since it’s possible to recognize and even appreciate a person’s good deed without forgiving them for their past bad deeds. But when he first offered it, there was something about my husband’s invitation to see the good being done that felt like it would equal forgiveness, and that made it harder to do. It’s like a bridge I couldn’t cross. And that led to my own stress and anxiety getting worse.
See, I drank the poison and waited for the rat to die.
My stubbornness in this situation might have further consequences. It could lead me down a path of not being open to the capacity for another person to evolve and change their mind. I’m a big believer in personal growth and giving one another space and grace on the journey. No one is going to get it perfect, ever, and changing our minds is good thing! It shows that we’ve opened our hearts and minds to different ideas and people and lessons. If we don’t evolve, we die.
It’s easy to remember this with people close to us, about those with whom we have shared values and beliefs. It’s not as easy with those who are different from us and who might hold the complete opposite of our beliefs. We’re less forgiving, less compassionate, less willing to extend space and grace to them. We doubt their sincerity. We say, “too little, too late.”
The call to action I’m giving myself is the same one I’m offering to you: notice when you’re closing yourself off to someone else’s evolution. What if you assume best intent, instead of insincere intent? What if you decide to take their good will gesture at face value, instead of deciding that there’s nothing they can do to earn a gold star in your eyes? As I said, and this is something I have to keep reminding myself: recognition does not equal forgiveness or acceptance. We can acknowledge and even appreciate someone’s good deeds while still condemning or holding them accountable for past wrongdoing.
I’ve shared this Walt Whitman verse on this podcast before, at least I think I have: Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.).
We are not simple, one-dimension beings. We are complex, messy, contradictory, multi-dimensional beings. If anything gets in the way of our ability to communicate with one another, it’s this truth. It’s hard work to tease through the contradictions we see in ourselves and in other people. And it’s especially hard when we don’t agree with those people. But it’s work we have to do if we’re going to move forward together in our communities and in our world.
Catch yourself when you’re drinking the rat poison. You might bring it to your lips, smell it, even take a taste. But don’t drink it. Don’t do that to yourself. Put it down, take a deep breath, remind yourself that we are flawed, complicated beings, and choose to extend a thought of grace to the other person. Here are few ways that thought might sound: thank you for doing the right thing today. I see your efforts to do good. I acknowledge that you’re doing your best in this moment. I appreciate that you have the ability to change your mind, and I’m glad you’ve done that now.
I’ve been talking about extending this to someone you don’t know, but it’s even more important with someone you do know. I’m reminded of another quote that I’ve probably shared here, this one from Dale Carnegie: give the other person a fine reputation to live up to. If you never accept their sincere efforts to change, if you become cynical about their attempts to right past wrongs, then you’re keeping them in a small box that limits their growth.
But if you look for and act on the opportunities to acknowledge growth and change, that encourages more of the same. It tells the other person, yes, this is a choice that makes me able to listen to you and be with you more fully. Again, acknowledgment of a current right doesn’t negate past wrongs. But it does give that person credit for their good-faith efforts, which reinforces more of the energy – and the choices – you want to experience from them.
Still take the action you need to take to make your concerns and feelings known about past behaviors that upset you. By doing it from a generous spirit, you’ll find the other person is more receptive to your feedback.
If what I’m suggesting here sounds impossible, I totally get it. I was completely resistant to my husband’s suggestion that I give credit where credit was due. It’s taken me a few days to process the idea and come out to a new way of thinking. And even so, I STILL feel some resistance! But I can feel my heart soften a bit as I consider the possibility that someone I strongly disagree with and even dislike might do something good.
So give yourself time to try on this way of thinking. It might take hours, days, or even weeks before you feel that softening in your heart. But with patience and sincere desire, you will feel it. And the more you practice it, the quicker it will soften.
It’s what I hope for all of us: soft and open hearts that are willing to let other people in, even those who we experience as wrong or even dangerous. When you think about it, the other choice is to harden and close our hearts, and that’s clearly not going to contribute to healing or peace. Softening and opening is risky – it leaves us vulnerable to pain and disappointment. But I’d rather risk that than be tight-hearted and disconnected. That is a sure path to pain and disappointment.
I hope if you’ve found value in this post, you’ll share it with friends, family members and colleagues who you think might find it interesting. I also appreciate your reviews and ratings on whatever platform you find this podcast. And please, subscribe and come back for future episodes! Be part of the movement to bring more courageous communication and open heartedness into the world.
This is Beth Buelow, and you’ve been listening to How Can I Say This. Our podcast producer is Paul Messing, and our theme music is by Brett Anderson. Thanks to you for joining me today. I invite you to take what you’ve learned here and use it to speak up, speak out, and speak courageously.