In my post titled “Sanity or Insanity? Choose”, I suggested that we individually observe ourself and ask if we are contributing to sanity or insanity. In the wake of the horrific event of mass murder and attempted murder of Rep. Gabby Giffords, I think it appropriate to ask another question.
What if a person is unable to examine and observe their thinking? What if they are so lost in their insane thinking that they are incapable of examining their thinking and emotions? In the worst cases we of course lock them up to protect ourselves from them. But what of those that are not yet in a murderous state? For those who spew vitriolic racial, political and abusive language toward others, how can we make a difference? Or can we make a difference? Is there a way we can be or actions we can take with those fellow human beings that will make an impact? What about a family member, a friend or just an acquaintance that is speaking their prejudice, hatred or just heated emotion? I say we can make an impact and I will illustrate by sharing an incident with my father.
I grew up in rural Georgia and my father was very racially prejudiced as were most people in my community when I was growing up. He freely and openly expressed his prejudice and acted on it in many ways. And he assumed that I agreed with him. Apparently it did not occur to him that my mother and I might not agree with him or that we might even be frustrated or offended by his way of being. And it certainly did not occur to him that those to whom his behavior was directed might be offended or feel demeaned.
And now to my point. Even though we both very much disagreed with him, neither of us ever expressed our disagreement, frustration or embarrassment. Did we not have the courage, commitment or voice to speak up? I’m not really sure. I can’t speak for my mother since she passed on many years ago but I lived with the regret of not speaking up until 2008 when my Dad was 92 and I simply could not live with that regret any longer. I had moved back to where I grew up to take care of my Dad and I was listening to his racist talk, usually several times a week.
President Obama was in the midst of the Presidential campaign and I was listening to him speak on TV one Sunday evening. Dad came in from evening church service and started speaking very hateful nasty comments about Mr. Obama. I think his just having left church and ten minutes later speaking that way plus interrupting my listening to the speech was a trigger for me.
I turned off the TV and told my Dad we had to talk. I asked him to sit down and I stood on my knees in front of him right against his knees. I wanted to make sure he could not walk away from what I had to say. I did not speak with anger but with the intention and intensity that came from releasing over 60 years of regret, guilt and frustration of not standing up to my father’s racist behavior. With this writing I am experiencing tears and pain in my gut. I realize this is highly personal and some might say I should not be sharing this about my Dad. But I am doing so with the hope that someone else might summon the courage to stand up to such behavior from someone they know or maybe even from themselves. What follows is a summary of what I said.
“Dad, you have always assumed I agreed with your racial views and behavior. I do not and never have, even as a little kid. You assumed you had the right to try to pass your views on to me. You do not have that right. I cannot change the way you think or your behavior. But I demand that you never speak that way in my presence ever again. It is offensive and I refuse to listen to such talk. And if you do it again, I will make the same demand and I will walk away from you if you persist. You do not have the right to make the judgments you make of black people or anyone else. To do so is an offense to the religion you were practicing tonight at church. And I will not ever again listen to your racial judgments without challenging you.”
There was more but I can’t remember all of it. Of course he was very angry and would not talk and we never spoke about the incident again. But here is what I consider the transformation that came out it. First, I was forever altered as a man and as a son. I found my voice with my father and that altered who I am as a human being. Secondly, my father was altered. Not only has he not spoken that way again about President Obama, he voted for him after saying he would not. After the election during another Obama speech, Dad said, “He is a very smart man”. And he spoke respect and admiration of President Obama several times before his physical condition deteriorated to where he can no longer speak. I am very grateful for having heard my father speak and act respectfully with black people after over 90 years.
I took a stand with my Dad. What if we all took that stand with someone we know? What if I had taken my stand with Dad many years ago? What if we took that stand with our politicians and demanded debate with civility. What if someone had taken a stand with the young man who killed all those people in Arizona and did so several years ago before he was in his insane murderous state?
Even if someone is unable to examine their own thinking and emotions and my Dad certainly was not before I took a stand, taking a stand transformed both of us.
Taking a stand, speaking that stand and acting consistent with the stand has the power to transform who are.