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December 31, 2016

Listen. Be Better.

I eschewed principles in general about twenty years ago—this after a painful attempt to compile in my journal a list entitled “What I Think About Things.” I recall that “abortion” was an item, and that while I’d never have one myself, I wanted other women to have the freedom to choose. Each item in the list was written in marker, alternating colours. I was trying to stand for something, because I’d read that if you don’t you’ll fall for anything. (I think I read that in someone’s high school yearbook grad comment.) Eventually, I gave up, because life itself is fluid, evolving, confusing and weird. And I think that this giving up was a vital part of my process of growing up, as much as the time I realized that if I was sure I was right about something and the person I was arguing with was just as sure of their own rightness, then what even was the point of being right? Did it mean nothing? Put that in your journal with a swoopy script and sparkly ink.

I consider all this now coming out of a year that’s been defined by polarities in broad communities and narrower ones. A year in which I’ve discovered that the kind of people who write racist comments responding to newspaper articles about First Nations people, just say, are actually people who exist in the world and are surprisingly fuelled by self-righteousness. So too are people who hate feminists and blame women for their sons’ unemployment. And those for whom “Blue Lives Matter” is a legitimate hashtag. It’s been a year in which believing women has been raised being the opposite of justice, and a movement against cultural appropriation seen as cultural oppression. “Yes, and,” I want to respond though. “Yes, but…” I want to answer. So what are we do to?

I’ve spent the week offline and reading biographies—Jane Jacobs, Claude Monet and Shirley Jackson. More about all of these in a post-to-come, but what I’ve taken away from all of these is the vastness of context, and how none of what we’re going through right now is remotely new. (Georges Clemenceau getting death threats in 1916 from right-wing religious zealots—do you too take heart from the fact that this sort of this is not a recent phenomenon? People have always been this stupid.) And what I’ve taken as well is the importance of keeping calm and having a long-view. Of doing what you can, but also acknowledging that getting hysterical is not going to serve anyone. These books and some time to think have led me to what, I think, will be my mantra for the year ahead.

Which is: LISTEN. BE BETTER. And that’s all. Be better than them, than that. Than you. Be better than the way it’s easiest for you to be, I mean. And understand that your willingness to listen is more important than anything you might have to say, or think—this is especially important if you are a white person considering issues of culture and race, for example. Which is not to say that one should not stand for something—I for one will be participating in the Toronto satellite of the Women’s March on Washington on January 21. It’s just that as I stand, my mantra will be the foundation of my action, rather than fervent self-righteousness or religious fervour, just say. I will acknowledge complexity, incongruity, tension, disagreement—all those things that make the world interesting, if, alas, it makes it tricky to hold in your hand.

2 thoughts on “Listen. Be Better.”

  1. Rohan says:

    Wise words, harder to live by than they might sound. I’m reminded of one of my favorite bits from The Mill on the Floss – I hope you’ll forgive a longish quotation, but what you say about principles seems akin to what she says about the ‘men of maxims’ and the inadequacy of thinking you can live by general rules:

    “The casuists have become a byword of reproach; but their perverted spirit of minute discrimination was the shadow of a truth to which eyes and hearts are too often fatally sealed — the truth, that moral judgments must remain false and hollow, unless they are checked and enlightened by a perpetual reference to the special circumstances that mark the individual lot.

    All people of broad, strong sense have an instinctive repugnance to the men of maxims; because such people early discern that the mysterious complexity of our life is not to be embraced by maxims, and that to lace ourselves up in formulas of that sort is to repress all the divine promptings and inspirations that spring from growing insight and sympathy. And the man of maxims is the popular representative of the minds that are guided in their moral judgment solely by general rules, thinking that these will lead them to justice by a ready-made patent method, without the trouble of exerting patience, discrimination, impartiality.”

    All good wishes for you and your family in 2017.

    1. Kerry says:

      I love this so much. Thanks for the richness you bring, Rohan. Happy New Year!

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