A Case for Putting Down Your Pitchfork: Curiosity as a Tool for Calling People In

Humans are innately meaning makers. Meaning gives us order and order gives us comfort. We are forever sorting people and attempting to make sense of them, the things that happen to us, and the world. We do that through our interactions and unfortunately mostly based on assumptions. All day, every single day, we make assumptions about people based on their words and actions. We make assumptions about their intentions, values, and character - among other things. As Brene Brown says, we make up stories about people. Sometimes these stories are true and sometimes they are reflections of own insecurities, fears, distastes, experiences, etc.

We are often quick to get defensive and grab our pitchforks based on assumptions without extending to other people/organizations the same things we want for ourselves. I am a flawed and broken human who often gets it wrong. When I misstep, I hope that other people 1. assume I had good intentions and 2. give me an opportunity to explain myself. If that’s what I want for myself, shouldn’t I grant other people the same courtesy? The simplest way to find out if your assumptions about a person or organization are correct is to ask.

As Brene models for us, when I find myself frustrated with someone or even an organization, I try to pause to reflect on what is fact versus what is the story I made up about them. This exercise is so telling. Nine times out of ten, my frustration or distaste comes from my assumptions rather than reality. People are nuanced and far more complicated than we give them credit for and sometimes we over-complicate things that actually have a very simple explanation.

Let me give you an example. I recently sent a draft of an essay to an editor. She sent back some notes and edits. I revised and resent it and then I waited. And I waited. And I waited. After a few weeks I started making up a story about what was going on. She hated my revisions. She was going to pull the essay. I was a terrible writer. The piece was bad. You know what was really happening? She was busy. She had taken on some new assignments and was adjusting to a new routine. She also had a sick kid and a trip that pulled her away from work for a few days. What was going on had very little to do with me or my essay, but I had convinced myself otherwise. I should have stopped and sorted out the truth from the story I was making up. My assumptions were wrong and had led me down a rabbit hole of shame and insecurity.

I’ve found this process useful not just in my personal relationships, but also in social justice and advocacy work. I catch flack sometimes from fellow advocates and social justice minded folks for making too much space for dialogue. They think I am negotiating with terrorists. What I am actually doing is trying to meet someone where they are and move them to a more progressive stance. I’m probably not going to convince someone to do a 180 on an issue in a single conversation, but if I can help them move 5 degrees, that’s something. I am often doing elaborate mental gymnastics to help people unpack their problematic views and recognize within themselves that what they believe is problematic. You know the best person to convince someone that they are wrong? Themselves. Dialogue, questions, and curiosity open us up for unpacking things while pitchforks often shut people down and push us farther into our respective camps.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to police emotions or invalidate disruption and pitchforks as effective tools for change. They absolutely have a role in creating effective and lasting social change. Sometimes dialogue is impossible. Having the time and space to put down your pitchfork comes from holding privilege. Change can be incremental when your life or livelihood don’t depend on it. Sometimes we don’t have the time to wait for incremental change that dialogue brings. Sometimes we don’t have the energy for it. In those cases, have the pitchforks ready.

What I am saying is that curiosity is sometimes the most powerful tool in our toolkit when we have the time and space to strategically create change. Perhaps before we act, before we rally the troops, before we sharpen our pitchforks, maybe we take a deep breath and try to get to the bottom of what’s going on. Maybe we take a beat to strategize about how we can be most effective. Maybe we consider whether this is an opportunity to call people in instead of calling them out. Both approaches have value and sometimes the most effective thing to do is grab the pitchfork, but sometimes we miss opportunities to create lasting change because we are reacting out of emotion and based on faulty assumptions.

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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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Living on Purpose: Life as a Choose Your Own Adventure Story

As a child, some of my favorite books to read were from the Give Yourself Goosebumps choose your own adventure series written by R.L. Stein. Throughout each book, there were several opportunities for the reader to exert some agency. If you wanted your character to walk through a door, you’d turn to page 78. And if you wanted the character to turn and run, you’d turn to page 52. Depending on the series of choices you made, the story could be slightly or drastically different every time you read it. I loved those books and others like them because it drew me into the process, begged me to be an active participant rather than just a consumer. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the choose your own adventure concept would be a perfect metaphor for navigating life. We can either be passive consumers of our experiences or we can actively shape the story.

Every day we make hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tiny and massive decisions that shape our own story. Turn here, eat this, accept that job offer. Each one has the potential to lead us down a slightly different path. Here’s the catch….in life, we already know the end of our story. We all meet the same ending so the question becomes, what do we want to do along the journey? We cannot always control the outcome of our decisions, and much like the choose your own adventure books, sometimes life throws us an unexpected twist, but we can live with intention, with an idea of what we’d like to experience on the way, and we can control how we react to those unexpected twists.

Living with intention simply means doing big and small things on purpose, with purpose. Here are a few things I do to make sure my own adventure is lived with intention:

  • Every morning I try to meditate on a single word that I hope to carry into my day. Grace. Humility. Boldness. It’s amazing how thinking about that one simple concept for even just a few moments can shift how I interact with the world.

  • I am intensely curious about myself and carve out plenty of time for self reflection. If you don’t know what your hopes, fears, desires, motivations, pitfalls, hangups, etc are…how can you live with intention? You will spend your life in a reactionary state, motivated by things within you that you do not understand.

  • I have a vision for the legacy I want to leave. I periodically reflect on the statement “Because of me, my son will know __________________”. What am I teaching him about the world? What is most important for him to understand? What will he say about me when I am gone? Knowing how I want to fill in that blank gives me guidance on how I navigate relationships, how I spend my time/money/energy. It is a filter through which I can run every decision. How does this help build the legacy I hope to leave?

  • I know some areas where I want to have an impact, some social problems I want to draw attention to. I cannot do all of the things, so where can I be most effective? These questions have led me to my most exciting opportunities and have kept me from spending too much time and energy on perfectly fine things that would keep me from having the strongest impact possible in a few select areas. Your life is going to have an impact, but you get to decide whether that’s an intentional impact or a haphazard one.

  • Meditation. I can’t tell you how much meditation has changed my life and how much better my whole experience is when my meditation practice is healthy. Sitting still is hard. Quieting your mind is hard. There are so many lessons to be learned in that stillness that we carry into the chaos.

Are you living with intention, actively and purposefully shaping your own story?

Or are you just a consumer of it, turning the page to find out what comes next?

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