For a number of years I have engaged in the often frustrating process of trying to enact legislation. The Washington state legislature is now in the third week of a biennial “short session” of only eight weeks which means we are in an even more pressured process to hear, debate and then, perhaps, pass important legislation. It is generally a tedious and usually disappointing test of patience and endurance.
But as trying as it is I have learned an important lesson from it all. Change does not come without cost and often loss, either in a social setting or personally, and there is considerable wisdom in adhering to caution and the deliberate speed in which laws are passed and, by extension, in all substantial social and personal change . We simply often need time to adjust and reevaluate what it means to create new conditions, new contexts, from which our lives must now operate, in order to responsibly transform the tensions and demands of change into positive and acceptable outcomes.
The past two plus Covid years have constantly forced so many changes upon us with a seemingly endless process of adaptations. The result is that we have experienced a good deal of trepidation, anxiety and fear during it all. Most of us have practiced a tolerable patience and endurance, but there is also an underlying mood of tension and frustration just below the surface. We are anxious to have things fixed and be done with the uncertainty and weariness of it all. As a society I think we careen between wanting someone to just “take care of things” and then resist when reasonable solutions are proposed, both unhelpful options. Or out of frustration we are tempted by unhelpful radical directions such as the dangerous threats of the extreme right or the “cancel culture” and book banning from both the right and left.
In my legislative advocacy I often find myself in a mood that practically demands changes to practices and policies that are doing obvious harm. My immediate legislative cause, for example, is to challenge solitary confinement in prisons because I know from personal observation and through research the traumatic harm it imposes on often already mentally compromised and vulnerable people. I want to argue that solitary confinement needs to be abolished, but I am also well aware that there are situations where an individual needs to be temporarily isolated. So I end up, as so often happens when we advocate for any radical change, seeking compromise. And the goal of political and personal compromise is to learn how to transform a structure or condition in a positive way.* In terms of solitary confinement, for example, can we agree that isolation is occasionally warranted, both for the safety of the custodial staff as well as the prisoners, but only if medically supervised and for very short duration? And that is the message I try to share.
During this unsettled Covid and reckoning time, how are we to transform our lives and our culture in perhaps dramatic but always in positive, humane directions that recognize how important it is to balance our internal acceptance of change with immediate and often confusing and provocative demands?
I would suggest that the answer is to be as intentional as we can about identifying, clarifying and living into our values. In my legislative work, for example, I try to maintain a lens that recognizes and honors the dignity and sacredness of each life. I think about the values of equality in terms of justice and how we treat people, especially those most marginalized like a prisoner. And I think about how I want to be treated myself.
I am most challenged, of course, by how I am to deal with those who apparently do not share my values. I have concluded I usually cannot expect to transform or influence people without establishing some level of relationship. I truly believe I can engage in an open invitation to conversation by exercising deep, curious listening and especially encouraging another’s stories. I recently listened to an interview with Desmond Tutu in which he said that the most important part of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process was that people were given the opportunity to tell their stories and be heard, their stories of terrible suffering and abuse, and how liberating that was for the person testifying as it was for those who listened to their stories and for those who were the source of such deep harm. What an important message if we are to be effective, transformative, agents of change.
*I acknowledge, however, there are situations for which I will not compromise, such as the use of torture.
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