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On being human

Content warning: police brutality

Happy holiday season, everyone.

As we reach one more year’s end and look ahead to yet another new year, I’m doing that thing that’s maybe expected, maybe common: thinking about things I hope can be better next year, and into the future.

And I just can’t shake one dominant thought.

We need to be more human with each other. I don’t mean be awful to each other – to follow our worst human impulses, or hew to the lowest common human denominator. I mean recognize our own and others’ humanity before anything else.

One of the most significant times this thought showed up recently was when I saw this video on Twitter. Have you seen it? Heart-breaking.

A mother, 23-year-old Jazmine Headley, has her one-year-old son violently ripped out of her arms by police officers who are attempting to arrest her – apparently because she sat down on the ground while waiting in line at the Brooklyn Human Resources Administration. She was there to get daycare vouchers for her son.

This is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. And it’s a perfect example for nonprofit folks like us, as the scene in that human services office is so similar to the places where many of us work or have worked.

I want to let brilliant writer Nikole Hannah-Jones lay it out for you in this Twitter thread, as she says what needs to be said. In case you don’t read the whole thread, here’s an important excerpt:

I cannot keep my mind from going back to the centuries-long conditioning we have to not treat black people like other people, black mothers like other mothers. I try to picture a white woman who is holding a baby for four hours and no one at the government office -- which exists to serve the people -- offering her a chair. And then I try to imagine police being called because she is sitting on the floor, which is not illegal. Then I try to imagine police trying to rip the baby from a white woman's arms, with no concern for the mother or the baby. And I cannot.

Dehumanizing each other makes us do things to each other that we would never, ever do if we saw ourselves in that person. So I’m hoping we can all work on humanizing each other -- on seeing ourselves in other people and tuning in to them and their needs.

There are many scenarios where we need to learn how to do this. Here are just a few places where this could apply:

Race. As Jazmine’s story above illustrates in 3D, the humanity of people of color is historically disregarded in our world. People don’t see and identify with a black mother the same way they see and identify with a white mother. Ever since “white” folks invented the concept of race (more on this here, here, here, and here) in order to claim more power for themselves by dehumanizing others, people of all colors have absorbed and accepted the lie that lighter skin means superiority. Versions of race-based dehumanization can happen between various communities of color, and to “white” folks, too – but, more than anybody else, communities of color and indigenous folks are bearing the brunt of the dehumanization. 

Gender and Sexuality. The #MeToo movement has brought to light how much women have been dehumanized in this world – seen as sex objects, rather than full, complex, intelligent humans with varied needs and talents. As rights for queer and trans folks have continued to grow, the backlash has been strong. Too often, people refuse to see that, no matter one’s gender, pronouns, or who someone chooses to love, people are worthy of full rights, respect, and dignity, simply because they are here and human.

Disability. When you encounter someone with a disability, is that all you see? Or do you see and connect with the human deep inside, the one who is living with that disability? What about people with invisible disabilities? Do you have compassion and are you willing to graciously make reasonable accommodations for people? 

For Those We Serve. Jazmine’s story resonates here, too. Those of us in the nonprofit sector are here to help. Each of our organizations has a mission that serves others. Do we see those we serve as fully human? Do we respect them? Do we honor their dignity? Do we give them the same attention and consideration we would our own family? Why wouldn’t we? 

For Our Colleagues. Why is it so common to dehumanize our colleagues? We make fun of the co-worker with the annoying habit. We see a bad boss as a monster, rather than a flawed human being with needs just like ourselves. We see colleagues as competition, rather than collaborators. Why? I genuinely wish more workplaces would allow for full humanity at work. This also means that people would be allowed to be flawed, and to be more than a professional robot who always does everything perfectly. They would be honored and supported as their full selves, allowed to BE their full selves. Can we do this?

For Our Donors and Funders. Why do we so often treat donors and funders as something other than human? They are people too. When people have a lot of wealth and/or power, it is so common for other people to suddenly treat them differently. Would you want to have people putting you at arm’s length, or missing your own humanity, just because you had those things? I sure wouldn’t. Let’s do our donors and funders the favor of honoring their humanity, too.

All of us are human beings before we’re anything else.

Let’s start honoring that truth in ourselves and others.

If we’re going to be more human with each other, the status quo is not going to work. Lots of things that we accept as “normal” right now will need to change.

Examples:

  • Process will often need to be just as important as outcomes. This means that HOW something happens, and who is considered and consulted and accommodated as something happens, will be just as important as WHAT happens.
  • We’ll need to stop making assumptions about people. Instead, we will need to have a new norm of assuming nothing and instead simply allowing people to reveal themselves to us. To facilitate this, we all need to get better at asking open-ended, open-hearted questions, and at listening closely to the answers.
  • We’ll all need to become much more nurturing – to both ourselves and others.
  • We’ll all need to be much more gentle – with ourselves and others.

I’ll end with a declaration: Nora McInerny is a National Treasure. Many of you probably know her story. Almost exactly four years ago, she lost a pregnancy and buried both her father and husband, all within a few weeks. Clearly her entire world was turned upside down.

Nora went to the depths of pain and grief in the human experience. And even when she was in the midst of it, she did not forget joy. Sharing the lessons she learned from her experiences, she wrote a book: It’s OK to Laugh (Crying is Cool Too).

She also started a podcast, Terrible, Thanks for Asking, as a place where she and others could discuss life and being human. As she writes about the show, “You know how every day someone asks ‘how are you?’ And even if you’re totally dying inside, you just say ‘fine,’ so everyone can go about their day? This show is the opposite of that.” 

I really love this podcast. I’m more human for listening to it.

One of the things I’ve learned, from listening to this podcast, is how soft and sensitive we ALL are underneath whatever exterior we may present to the world.

Person after person has been interviewed by Nora and shared their pain, grief, struggle, and heartache – even and especially the folks we think of as “brave” and so “tough,” like military veterans. Listen to one of my favorite episodes, Semper Fi, to hear how Vietnam War veterans still struggle to square their humanity with the terrible things they experienced in the war. You’ll see that even veterans are soft and sensitive.

We ALL are soft and sensitive inside (buried deeper for some than others), and we ALL need nurturing, love, and care, no matter what – or how – we may be presenting to the world.

So let’s be gentle with each other, more human with each other – can we, please? Here’s to a better, more gentle, more nurturing, more human 2019 and beyond.


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