A couple years ago my wife, Christine and I went on a weekend getaway double-date with our good friends, Bob & Jane. I was so excited to see everyone and probably ate too much sugar that afternoon and Friday night I basically talked my face off to the three of them. Later that evening I realized that I had taken up more than my fair share of the air and I resolved to apologize to the group the next morning.
So there I was, sitting in the back of Bob and Jane’s mini-van, on our way to some fun destination, and I sheepishly said, “Hey there, I realize that I was talking a lot last night and I’m sorry.” I figured that’d be it. End of story. Folks would appreciate me for being so enlightened and apologizing.
Without even a hint of anger in his voice, Bob said, “When people tell me they’re sorry, I usually interpret that to mean that they’re going to do it again. I don’t want to hear that you’re sorry, I want to hear what you’re committing to going forward.”
Oh. ok. I wasn’t expecting that. felt my cheeks get hot and a wave of embarrassment come over me. And by the way, the whole situation was even more awkward because there I was sitting in the back of the mini-van, like I was a kid or something.
Then I realized Bob was right. The challenge he issued was an incredible gift for me.
So I took a minute and thought about it and came up with this, “I commit to creating space for everyone to share what’s on their minds and to listening deeply to what you all have to say.”
That seemed to satisfy my friends and we went on to enjoy a lovely weekend together.
That was about 6 years ago and I remember it like it was yesterday. The power of commitment and the emptiness of an apology. Fast forward to this past week and I had the tremendous privilege of spending three days with our Billions Institute Fellows in Atlanta. Our time together included a day-trip to the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. (The picture below is from the Memorial).
First, let me just say this museum and memorial is a MUST VISIT for everyone who lives in the United States to begin to more fully grasp the terrorism inflicted on black people in this country that continues to this day. Especially for people who work to advance social change and/or social justice.
Second, I want to share one of my biggest learnings from my experience and the subsequent dialogues that we had in the fellowship. It builds upon the lesson I learned from my friend Bob all those years ago. Here’s my best understanding of what happens for me. When I as a person who identifies as white encounter the pain and suffering and trauma of Indigenous people or people of color, every instinct I have is to say, “I’m sorry” and obviously that is as deeply insufficient here as it was in the back of Bob’s mini-van. Then I want to leap to commitment – to action – to doing something – anything – to fix it and make it better. And absolutely yes, that is called for and appropriate. And yet – there’s something in the leaping to commitment and action in this case -for me- that represents a skipping over and a hurrying up and an “I don’t want to stay in this discomfort for another minute!!” that helps me know this is actually more about me relieving my discomfort than it is about anything else in that moment.
And this week one thing dialed in for me – that one thing I can do – one thing I can commit to, is to be with. To be fully with. To be fully present. To sit side-by-side and breathe with people I love and to acknowledge the pain and suffering and trauma. That this being with is doing something and whoo boy is it uncomfortable.
Kelsey Blackwell in her wonderful essay, “Why People of Color Need Spaces Without White People” summarizes this well with this: “The only thing I want to hear from white people about race is, I’m sorry. I didn’t see. I didn’t listen. I’m working to see and listen now.
Listening deeply and being with are two of the most powerful transformation moves I can make. Period. That’s my biggest takeaway from last week and I re-commit to listening deeply and being with the people in my life.