I am meeting with the very talented Michelle Jeffrey to get her insight on a delicate situation I am navigating at work with an external group of people who feel like their intentions to serve marginalized people have been disrespected.
“I always felt like disagreement equaled violence,” Michelle tells me. “Like if I said something against what someone else was saying that didn’t feel right to me, I’d be in harm’s way. So I stayed silent.”
Michelle speaks up today. She speaks out and lives her life on her terms. Doing it her way.
A memory slips into my mind.
Year’s ago, while working on a project with an organization that supports teens in distress, I was entering a building on their site for a meeting. As I walked towards the front door, a young woman exited the building where I was to meet one of their managers. She saw me, walked towards me and forcefully asked, “What are you doing here?”
I wanted to be polite. To show her I felt empathy and compassion for her situation, whatever it was.
“I’m here for a meeting,” I replied, smiling.
She grabbed my wrist, dug her fingers into my skin and said, “You can’t go in there.”
The suddenness of her action took me by surprise. I didn’t want to inflame an already delicate situation and quietly said, “I have a meeting. I need to go in there. Please let go of my wrist.”
She dug her nails in more deeply.
“You need to let go of my wrist. Now. So I can go to my meeting.”
I looked directly into her eyes consciously keeping my breathing slow, my voice soft.
She let go and started to walk away muttering back at me, “You can’t go in there.”
I went in.
As I remember the story of the young girl grabbing my wrist I also see something I hadn’t recognized before. I’d always focused on how upset that encounter made me feel. I often wondered what I could have done differently to avoid the confrontation.
What I’d missed seeing in my desire to make it ‘all about me’ was the strength and courage it took for me to simply stand my ground, quietly, firmly, compassionately.
I wasn’t standing in opposition. I was standing in compassion.
I wasn’t pushing back. I was creating space for both of us to move on.
I hadn’t recognized those things before. I remember thinking how scared I was. How I wanted to cry but didn’t want to give into my fear.
At the time, when I spoke with the man whom I was meeting with, he told me that the young girl had just been told she had to leave the program and return home.
“It’s possible she did what she did to force us to let her stay. She’s afraid to move on.”
“What’s important,” he added, “is that you don’t personalize her actions to be about you. If you need to talk to someone about what happened, we can find a counsellor for you.”
I assured him I was okay. But I still thought about the situation a lot. Wondering what I could have done differently.
My head wanted to minimize my fear, and the scratches on my wrist, by pretending it wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t want to make it a big deal by over-reacting to a situation which I knew, in my head, was not about me.
My heart wanted to cry. She hurt me. Why did she do it?
That young woman knew violence. It had surrounded her all her life. It was the ground upon which she stood to protect herself, to defend against the unknown, to rebel against what she’d always known.
The difference that day was, my life had taught me that disagreement does not equal rejection, or violence.
Disagreement is an opportunity to find common ground, no matter how rocky the ground upon which we meet.
I could choose to respond in violence, or find the path to peace.
Thanks Michelle for shining your light so I could see where I stand today.
We can all choose to find the path to resolve our differences by choosing compassion, understanding, tolerance and love. Every day.
Which will you choose?