The Inner Work of Outer Change
by laura brewer
Published: September 21, 2017
I can’t stop thinking about 45’s campaign slogan (“make America great again”) and about how he is so clearly defining for us what his vision for a “great” America entails. It’s an America without immigrants; without transgender people in the military; without the guarantee of health care for all people; an America where the liberty of hate speech matters more than the safety of people (of color). It’s an America with and without many other things/peoples/values that would make for a very long and sad post, and that is not the point I wish to share.
I cannot change 45’s vision. Nor can I change the minds of people who resonate with his vision. Personally, I have never once enjoyed or taken kindly to — let alone changed my mind because of — someone trying very intentionally to change my mind. So I ask myself: where is action for me to take, where is responsibility for me to hold that is congruent with my value of love? If I take action that is in misalignment with my values of love and compassion and connection, I am contributing to 45’s vision rather than weakening it. I’m fueling the energy of aggression that is the life force and artery for his vision of exclusion, separation, and superiority.
There are actions out in the world I can and must take: phone calls, protests, donations of money, sweat, and effort, etc. And. I have come to believe through my life that one of the most essential actions of love and justice I can and must take is the courage to examine myself — with as much of a critical eye as I examine a system, a construct, a hateful ideology. (AND that I must learn to put myself under this sort of critical microscope from a seat of choice and a place of self-compassion.)
When I do that, here’s what’s true for me (without shame and from self-love): I am no different than Donald Trump. I am capable of fear and of exercising fear; I am capable of hate and inflicting hate; I am capable of apathy and practicing apathy; I am capable of craving power and asserting power over; I am capable of exclusion and actively excluding; I am capable of judging and of putting others on trial for their worthiness.
I am susceptible to these things — and actively (even if unconsciously) use them as weapons — because, at the end of the day, there is some part of me that I cannot accept. Some piece I believe must be exorcised and removed. Some piece that I don’t believe is worthy (because if I did, I could be with it in the light—without an attempt to escape or make it stop or defend myself). Histories and truths and traumas that have caused me isolation and shame, that I wish to hide and forget. That I want to make go away. That I believe should be dehumanized and placed behind a wall. And what I know deep in my bones is that I cannot acknowledge someone else’s full worth and worthiness until I am able to acknowledge my own.
For a long time, it was my queerness that I couldn’t hold or be with. I spent over 20 years rejecting, denying, and hating my queerness — unable to simply choose to acknowledge it, let alone love it. But there are many other things — daily things — that I struggle to accept, that I believe are imperfect and therefore unworthy of compassion or that mean I am not whole. I reject those pieces of myself all the time. On some days, it’s leadership mistakes that deeply hurt, made wrong, or disenfranchised people and teams I loved and I use those mistakes as tools of shame. I am unable to apologize, or own my responsibility, or forgive myself for those errors; I am unable to hold that I am both a great AND imperfect leader, so I either deny my greatness altogether or use the imperfection as a tool with which to beat myself up so that the shame I feel makes sense. On other days, I deny my worthiness and humanity because I feel a sense of fraudulence — there are family members I struggle at times to love and accept, or conversations I choose not to have, or forgiveness I choose to NOT give. I invoke power over rather than surrendering to how powerless I sometimes feel. Some days, it’s my whiteness and privilege — it’s easier to point out the flaws and racism in “those [bad] white people” rather than to acknowledge, with compassion, that my tendency to outcast and isolate other white people in order to feel better about myself is the very heart and function of white supremacy. And on other days still, I can’t hold the evolved aspects of my queerness and how I love that don’t fit within traditional definitions of marriage or social constructs of love. So I choose to push away those aspects of me rather than to accept, befriend, and patiently and compassionately them. These are all things I struggle to be with in the light. Aspects of who I am that I struggle to hold from a seat of love.
My ability to see, value, respect and make room for others is contingent on my ability to see, value, respect and make room for all the pieces of myself — especially the pieces that disgust me, that cause me pain, the pieces I long to be different than they are (in spite of the impossibility of that desire).
It is not this inner work instead of outer work and action. It is outer work and action because of — in conjunction with — this inner work. This work to learn to hold all of who I am (mistakes, flaws, weirdness, egregious errors and all!) with love and compassion and an unapologetic belief that there is room for all of me.
If I cannot look inside myself and choose to believe in my worth and choose to acknowledge all the pieces of who I am, I cannot truly believe in the worth of others — at least not in a way where my intentions and actions align. If there is a piece of me I am constantly rejecting, there will be pieces of others I will also reject. And that tendency to separate or reject — when paired with power and wealth — is the exact same thing that makes Donald Trump believe that some humans should be kept separate, or do not belong, or are not welcome.
“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” — Rumi