Stop Wasting Your Energy on People Who Don't Give a Sh*t

In the process of becoming a foster parent, you are asked to identify what sort of children you are willing to accept into your home. You can specify age, gender, disability status, race, etc. After a few discussions, Dustin and I decided that we could be open to any child up to age 5 without significant disabilities. I was in graduate school pursuing a doctorate in sociology when we got certified. Having studied a number of social issues (including race), I felt like I was relatively aware of the unique challenges a child of color might encounter and we thought we had a very inclusive community of friends and family, so we checked all of the race boxes. But intellectual awareness and emotional awareness are two very different things and I was about to get a first hand lesson in people not living up to my expectations of who they are. When we brought home a black boy, we were confronted head on with racism. What startled me the most was not the experience of racism, but who it was coming from. People who we loved, people who were "good Christians”, and people who we trusted were engaging in incredibly problematic behavior.

My first instinct was to offer grace and to help them see their words and actions as racist. I loved these people, I shared years and years of memories with some of them, and I desperately wanted them to remain in our lives but I could not continue to tolerate their behavior. Too much was at stake. A few people were willing to do the work, to self reflect, and change. But several people weren’t and that left us with an incredibly difficult choice to make. We could either cut ties with them, setting some very hard boundaries about what we were going to allow in our lives….or continue to expose our son to people who were deeply committed to white supremacy culture. Ultimately we walked away from some people we loved who were also toxic, inflexible, and more committed to their racism than they were to remaining a part of our lives.

It’s okay to do and say problematic things, we all have room to grow. It is not okay to refuse to do any self-reflection or remain open to feedback from the people you claim to care about. I am done wasting my energy on people who do not give a shit. There are people who I know and love who are ready to come to the table and do the work to disengage from white supremacy culture and dismantle racism and other systems of oppression. My time is better spent investing in those relationships than mourning the people we’ve lost along the way, even the ones I loved dearly. I could spend all my time and energy on those people, begging them to get it, but ultimately they are responsible for their own growth. It is not my job to save people. It is not my responsibility to continually and repeatedly spend my emotions, energy, and time on people who have zero interest in changing and have little regard for what I want/need in a relationship. I do not have to demand less of people simply because I love them and I am scared of alienating them. I am done lowering my expectations, biting my tongue, or writing problematic behavior off because “that’s just who they are”. My time, energy, and emotions are the most precious commodities I have and I am done wasting them on people who are committed to upholding systems of oppression.

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A Case for Always Assuming Good Intentions

Humans are meaning makers, we love to "make sense" of our experiences and the way our brains do that is by constructing stories about the things happening around us and to us. The problem is, we can only create these stories based on the information available to us and often we have incomplete information. It's impossible to know what other people are thinking or to have all of the details sorted out, so we fill in the gaps the best we can and end up making up stories that fit the narrative that makes the most sense to us. Unfortunately, in our own minds, we are usually the hero of the story. We are the good guy and that leaves everyone else to play support roles or villain roles, but it's always way more complicated than that. Slowing down and trying to see the nuance and truly understand other people's perspectives benefits everyone in the long run. It is the epitome of grace and it can change how you see the world and relate to others. 

This meaning making process plays out in a thousand small and big ways in our lives every day. A person cuts you off on the way to work. You can tell yourself that they are a jerk- careless, insensitive, and selfish. Or, you can assume that maybe they genuinely didn't see you or that maybe they are trying to get to a loved one who is having a crisis. You ask your spouse to do something and they forget. You can tell yourself that they don't care about your wants and needs, that they are self absorbed, insensitive, or a bad listener. Or you can assume that maybe they literally forgot, maybe something more important distracted them, or maybe they have too much on their plate right now. A person disagrees with you about a belief you hold deeply. You can assume they are an idiot or you can recognize that there is a reason they hold that belief and seek to understand the information and experiences that led them to feel that way. It happens all day every day- we make stories up about what's going on in the world around us. How you approach those stories matters. 

Here's what I would challenge you to do- 1. Assume good intentions always, 2. If you have the opportunity for dialogue, seek to understand, and 3. Repeat that cycle forever. Assuming good intentions doesn't hurt you at all. It just relieves you of the pressure to be angry or hurt or to feel shame. It prevents you from making assumptions about who a person is or how they feel about you. It keeps you from making up stories that are untrue. Seeking to understand will help you learn. It will build your relationship with the other person. It extends grace in its most basic form. It helps them to feel seen and heard and it gives you information you need to confidently make sense of the experience. You know the easiest way to figure out what somebody meant with their actions or how they feel about you? Ask them. It's really that simple. There will be people in your life who are toxic, who do not have good intentions, who will lie and manipulate and deceive, but in my experience those people are few and far between. Most people are good and are doing the best they can to navigate the world. I would also argue that one or two bad experiences with a person shouldn't forever color your understanding of who they are. People are nuanced. People mess things up. People do things driven by emotions that they would never do "in their right mind". Keep assuming that they had good intentions and give them an opportunity to explain themselves and do better. Keep coming back to the mat and doing the work, it's so worth it.  

The next time you feel anger or hurt or resentment rising up in you, try to slow down long enough to sort out if there is evidence to support your understanding of what happened or if you're making up a story that serves you, filling in the gaps with information that may or may not be true. Then, always seek the truth. 

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Making Space at the Table

In a time when Americans seem more divided than ever, the suggestion that we "make more room at the table" continually comes to the surface as one way of addressing issues, figuring out how to move forward, and finding common ground. Making more room at the table means creating space for people who aren't already part of the conversation. There are a few ways this can happen. Making more room at the table could mean buying a bigger table. While that's an okay approach to making more room at the table, it takes effort. You have to find a new table you like, get rid of the existing table, re-configure the seating arrangement, buy more table settings.  By the time you do all that, people aren't even hungry anymore...they've found somewhere else to eat. Luckily, there is another way to make more room at the table....everybody scooting in, making themselves a bit smaller, so there's room at the table you already have. When you add somebody to the table in this way, all the attention is focussed on them- people make sure they have silverware, pass the food, explicitly welcome them. Making room at the table is not just about creating space, it's also about making yourself a bit smaller so that the needs, opinions, and experiences of those you are asking to join you can be elevated.

So how can we make ourselves smaller? Make space at the metaphorical table? 

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Here are a few ideas: 

  • De-center yourself. Sometimes making space at the table means intentionally stepping away from the center of the circle. In stepping away from the center, you are able to widen the circle and shift the focus. Move from your favorite seat. Offer your seat to somebody else. Take the corner seat that nobody wants. It's so easy to navigate the world as the star of our own show instead of playing the supporting role. Even in movies and books, the main character needs to be sidelined at times so that another character has the space they need to work out an issue, to develop. 
  • Intentional Silence & Deep Listening. Life Coach Heather Plett offers this: “Intentional silence is one of the most important principles of holding space. To hold space for other people (and for ourselves) we have to know when to speak and when to remain silent. When our egos get in the way, we want to offer advice, improve on someone’s story, control the outcome, or at least let people know how smart we are. All of those things are detrimental to the process of holding space. They draw attention away from the person you’re holding space for and draw it toward yourself.” Sometimes the best thing we can do to make space at the table is be quiet and honor the voices that need to be elevated. Being heard is a way of being loved and truly listening is a way loving well. We don't always have to be the savior, the expert, the champion. When we listen without worrying about what we are going to respond with, we are able to process things more carefully and see the humanity in others, the things that connect us. 
  • Make a relational covenant. Perhaps you need to make a promise to yourself to recognize that we can be bound by the way treat each other more than by shared beliefs. I am uniquely situated given my evangelical upbringing and my now more progressive beliefs. I have people in my life who are deeply conservative and those who are deeply liberal. At the end of the day, I can choose to always search for the humanity in others and value our commonalities more than I seek to change their belief system. That doesn't mean I am silent about my beliefs, and it doesn't mean we have to be best friends, it just means I try to honor the humanity in others, value the many wonderful things about them, and recognize when we need to take a step back from the debate and reconnect as humans.  

How are you making space at the table?

How can you make yourself smaller so that there is space for others?

How can you practice these values in your life?