Wednesday, November 19, 2014

"Fix the World" vs. "Fix Yourself"

Recently someone came and preached at my church about his social justice work. I have to say that he rubbed me the wrong way in his very first sentence. He said we were called upon to minister to people whom "society considers to be unlovable."

As a transgender person, I often feel that I belong to a group which society considers to be unlovable. But I do not like being reminded of that fact from the pulpit. Also, even if "society" considers us to be unlovable, we still love ourselves. We can still find people who love us. Love is still present in our lives.

More importantly from a social justice perspective, it is not love that we want. It is justice. (To paraphrase Frances E. W. Harper.) I don't need everybody to love me. I need people not to discriminate against me. I need people to respect me. I need people to treat me the same as everyone else. If you "love" everyone, you can love me too. But in my experience very few people love everyone.

In my opinion, the problem with talking about social justice is that you are frequently talking to one group of people about another group of people. The speaker often seems to assume that no member of that "less fortunate" group of people is in the room. As a result, they describe these people using words that I don't believe they would ever use to a person's face. (Incidentally, the speaker at my church was not referring to transgender people when he talked about being unloved by society. I don't recall that he mentioned LGBT people at all in his sermon. But I applied his words to myself.)

It is hard to talk about the poor, the homeless, the less fortunate, without sounding patronizing. Especially when you talk about them as if they are completely passive and weren't doing a thing to help themselves until you came along, which is how I felt this speaker was talking about the people he works with.

He used another phrase which annoyed me too. He said that he had been relatively successful in his previous career, and at some point he made the choice to become "downwardly mobile." This annoyed me because many of us don't have a choice in the matter. It sounded like he was slumming.

The most interesting part of his sermon was when he addressed the question "Is it better to work on fixing the world, or fixing yourself?" He's a believer in fixing the world first. I happen to believe in fixing yourself first. His argument, as far as I can remember it, was that it's impossible to fix yourself 100 percent, and rather than spending all your time and energy on yourself, you could be out helping people. That is certainly true.

However, it's also impossible to fix the world 100 percent. In my opinion, we have a better chance of managing ourselves than of managing the whole world. The world has a tendency to do things differently from the way we would do them. The world has a tendency to not behave the way we would like it to. And trying to fix yourself cultivates a degree of equanimity, which we can use to meet the disappointments and unappreciativeness of the world with grace and patience. It often happens that when people set out to fix the world, their unresolved issues detract from the work they're trying to do.

I do believe that social justice work is necessary. It's largely my own personality traits that cause me to be more interested in the interior life. I also believe quite strongly that even if you can't fix the world, you can try to avoid causing harm to others. And fixing yourself is the best way to do that.

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