So, I was flying home this past week and noticed that the flight attendant working my section of the plane looked familiar. I had been moved to a seat at the front of the plane and so she had just a dozen of us to tend to which meant I saw a lot of her. I also heard a lot from her once she got to talking with a White man in his late 50’s (a doctor) seated in the row in front of me. As they chatted I heard her first make a critical comment about the Affordable Care Act (“I would never be a doctor today given what Obamacare has done to our health system”), and then I heard her say that she is very involved in politics and would like Ted Cruz to win but if Trump gets the nomination she’ll vote for him because of his immigration stance.
Mind you, I was sitting there working on an upcoming race, racism and whiteness training and so this did not jive well with the mind-space I was in. Immediately I started judging her and her politics and could feel the gravitational pull of my own politics want to say something. I did not speak up, but if I’m honest I did shoot a half-hearted glare in her direction as she continued her very loud political commentary. I also heard her say that she has been working at the airline for 36 years and has so much seniority that she flies internationally for only a handful of months out of the year and then takes long periods of time “off”. This exacerbated my frustration (and judgement) because the reason she can do that is completely based on the fact that she is in a union. If there were no union supporting her, the airline would have fired her long ago in favor of newer workers with less seniority whom they could pay less. And yet, given her politics, I imagine she hates her union for its “lefty, liberal-ness”.
Her politics are not the reason for this reflection. Those ideas are a dime a dozen these days. What I want to focus on is my reaction. The more she talked, the more disturbed I became inside. After about 10 minutes I finally noticed the tumult of my internal landscape and paused to take some slow, deep breaths while I said something to the effect of “the love in me sees the love in you”, a phrase I heard a colleague say a few days prior, so it was in my head. I wanted to feel compassion for her. I wanted to be okay with her, despite how starkly divergent her views are from mine, and how dangerous I find them to be. I wanted to be able to meet her energetically with calmness, generosity, and a love for her as a person while still strongly disagreeing with her. I wanted all of that because it is wildly hypocritical of me to advocate for social justice but then only extend the core characteristics of it to those who agree with me. There can be no peace when kindness and care are selectively allocated, and in this case, when my self-righteous view of the world is used to determine how I afford various folks their humanity (or not). I was in a workshop two years ago (as a participant) and the topic was the importance of compassion in our social justice work, and one woman said, “I just can’t and won’t do it, and I don’t think I have to”. On one level I got where she was coming from – various forms of oppression have been dogging her throughout her entire life and so to extend compassion in moments connected to them was a heavy lift. But on another level, I felt myself wonder how we can afford to not be compassionate? The delusion, it seems, is that we actually have a choice in the matter.
Thus I wanted to ground into kindness and compassion toward her, and at one point was able to actually manifest some of it…that is, until I remembered that she was the flight attendant I got into a verbal altercation with on a flight in late September of 2014. I was flying home from the New York City climate march with my friend Karen and this flight attendant started bashing the march, loudly proclaiming to two other passengers that there is no such thing as climate change because she has read the research and it doesn’t exist (she explains the warming by the “natural solar cycle theory”…a theory that has been thoroughly debunked), and that those people in NYC are just losers, trouble makers and “idiots”. Yep, I lost it. I thought for sure that I was going to get put on the no fly list, but I didn’t care because that was an absurd thing to say. Thankfully it was a short interaction because we were arguing as the plane was starting to land. I was fuming as we disembarked but didn’t say anything else to her.
And here she was again, right in front of me, talking to the doctor for over 25 minutes or so about the Republican party, health care, how much they hate President Obama, foreign policy (those Syrians are wrecking their country), and the like. Though I was now even more triggered, the grounding in paved the way for no verbal altercations, no raising my voice, and not even the passive-aggressive shaking of my head and judgmental chuckling that I unfortunately do sometimes to show disagreement. I just returned to my mantra with a little more zeal – “the love in me sees the love in you”. I had to because I genuinely wanted to be different with this woman this time around. There is always a choice in moments like these and to be honest I choose to “react” more than I care to admit. Driven largely by my fear that we will not change in time and a heavy sadness I sometimes feel about how we treat each other, I often jump too quickly into the mix. Stepping out and strongly speaking up is not wrong of course, but when it is driven by fear, sadness and self-righteousness the result is usually the spreading of more the same. And so I wanted to meet her from a wiser and more grounded space knowing that it would not change her politics nor make her even stop talking so loudly, but it would change me, and that was what I was going for. If I cannot express love and care and a desire to hold those I so strongly disagree with in positive regard, I am not really that much different than the afraid and angry folks at those Trump rallies. Sure there are stark differences on the surface, but under it all, I’m coming from the same place.
Espousing peace and social justice needs to be a more deeply lived experience for me and this was a chance to try and meet this flight attendant with compassion, extend grace to her just as surely as doing so extends it to myself, and see what the power of love can really do in moments that feel intractable. The result was that I genuinely and with an honest curiosity began to wonder where her beliefs stemmed from and what kind of safety they gave her. I was reading some Marshall Rosenberg just before this flight and I started to wonder what needs her beliefs were meeting and if there was a way that I could join her in that space while not having to sow hate and fear. Said differently, is there a way I can help her feel deeply “okay” while simultaneously questioning her specious claims rooted in ideologies that are historically and currently connected to systems of oppression?
I’ll end this blog with that question – one that seems to resonate in all moments of addressing these issues. I’m not talking about pacifism; I’m talking about not reproducing the violence that has led us to so many painful places individually and collectively, and instead trying to find some grace and wisdom born out of our collective desire for safety and peace. Too often I hear social justice advocates reduce this conversation to either a) having a strong social justice critique and seeing compassion as “too soft”, or b) being rooted in compassion but letting go of some of the strength and clarity of a critique. I believe that the challenges of our time as they relate to social justice require a deep understanding of both – a fierce social justice lens and the capacity to never lose sight of the humanity of those we’re confronting. I don’t claim to have a handle on this, but I did want to share this moment with “that” flight attendant where I was able to catch a glimpse of it and its efficacy in this work. And as this election year ramps up I have a feeling the ever-louder levels of vitriol and attack will give me lots of chances to practice this process. Despite the tendency to try and justify it, human history has repeatedly shown that we cannot effectively fight violence with violence. That does not mean we sit back and let oppression happen. There is a third option of addressing violence and moving through moments of great conflict, and it is through the lens of kindness, compassion, fierce commitment to justice, and love. Not easy, but necessary. The delusion, again, is that we think we have a choice.