Transforming Injury into Empowerment and Engagement: A Moving Example

In my last post, I wrote about the school shooting in Georgia and how, as a result of a different kind of response, there was a different outcome—an outcome far superior in my opinion (in terms of avoiding further trauma and protecting human life).

Most of us, thankfully, never have to face a life and death situation like the one Ms. Tuff handled with such integrity, compassion and courage. Yet how do we respond in more mundane situations—where we may be criticized, blamed, or misunderstood? How do we muster a similar level of integrity, leadership, and courage? And, in doing so, generate a different—and more life affirming—outcome for everyone?

Most of us find it challenging to be criticized or blamed or ridiculed even if in a “local” situation—between two people, on your block, or in an office—but what if you are assessed and judged by someone you don’t know, without your knowledge, and this is made public—on the internet—and becomes a public topic of debate?

Balpreet Kaur, a Sikh youth, recently offered a powerful example of how to respond gracefully “under fire” in this kind of challenging social media situation.  You may already have heard the story because it actually happened a while back. For those who missed it, here’s the gist: someone saw something they didn’t understand and probably were uncomfortable with  (in this case, a person, Balpreet, with ambiguous indicators regarding their gender: a woman with facial hair). He took a picture of Balpreet (without her knowing) and posted it on Reddit, with the comment ” I don’t know what to conclude from this…” (you can read more about the whole story here: http://jezebel.com/5946643/reddit-users-attempt-to-shame-sikh-woman-get-righteously-schooled ) . And here’s the photo that was posted:

ku-xlargeWhile the internet can invite disparaging comments because it seems so vast as to be anonymous, in this case Balpreet heard about the post via friends and responded. Rather than returning with “fire,” she offered a true example of turning the other cheek—and, in taking a radically different response, transformed the situation from one of confusion, hurt, distrust and lack of dignity to a stunning example of consideration, care and respect.

Balpreet responded in a remarkably neutral way—making use of what we would call observations in the NVC model. Beyond being neutral, she even brings in lightness and humor. She opens her response by sharing, “Hey, guys. This is Balpreet Kaur, the girl from the picture. I actually didn’t know about this until one of my friends told me on facebook. If the OP wanted a picture, they could have just asked and I could have smiled :)”  She then shares her feelings and states the “facts” (free of evaluation or blame): “However, I’m not embarrassed or even humiliated by the attention [negative and positive] that this picture is getting because, it’s who I am. Yes, I’m a baptized Sikh woman with facial hair. Yes, I realize that my gender is often confused and I look different than most women.”  From the start, via humor, sharing her feelings authentically, and using observation, she deescalates a charged situation. In effect, by acknowledging that her physical appearance is different in some ways from societal expectations for her gender, she creates shared reality with the person who posted the photo—-offering, in my opinion, an empathic gesture, a reaching out, and, by doing so, making connection.

Having made an empathic connection with the poster (and everyone reading), she then shares honestly how she sees herself and the choices she’s making—-inviting in a completely different world view about our bodies and appearance that’s truly inspiring:

“However, baptized Sikhs believe in the sacredness of this body – it is a gift that has been given to us by the Divine Being [which is genderless, actually] and, must keep it intact as a submission to the divine will. Just as a child doesn’t reject the gift of his/her parents, Sikhs do not reject the body that has been given to us. By crying ‘mine, mine’ and changing this body-tool, we are essentially living in ego and creating a seperateness between ourselves and the divinity within us. By transcending societal views of beauty, I believe that I can focus more on my actions. My attitude and thoughts and actions have more value in them than my body because I recognize that this body is just going to become ash in the end, so why fuss about it? When I die, no one is going to remember what I looked like, heck, my kids will forget my voice, and slowly, all physical memory will fade away. However, my impact and legacy will remain: and, by not focusing on the physical beauty, I have time to cultivate those inner virtues and hopefully, focus my life on creating change and progress for this world in any way I can. So, to me, my face isn’t important but the smile and the happiness that lie behind the face are. :-)”

Already having taken “the higher ground,” Balpreet then closes with an invitation for others to connect with her and expressing gratitude—yes, gratitude!–for this opportunity to create greater understanding and dialogue: “So, if anyone sees me at OSU, please come up and say hello. I appreciate all of the comments here, both positive and less positive because I’ve gotten a better understanding of myself and others from this.”  Wow.  For me, what elevates the situation is that rather than responding to what I would consider a hurt or injury (someone posting your picture with disparaging comments), Balpreet in effect does the “work” that I imagine the poster neglected to do—look at his own response to a trigger (in this case, someone’s appearance), understand what insecurities it raises internally for you, and take responsibility.

As if all this could not be any sweeter, by changing the level of discourse, Balpreet’s response invited a completely different response from the original poster. Seeing her comments, he goes into a fair bit of self-judgment (I’m sad to say) and, in essence, expresses regret and acknowledges how his own values (needs) were left unmet by the choices he made:

“/r/Funny wasn’t the proper place to post this. Maybe /r/racism or /r/douchebagsofreddit or /r/intolerance would have been more appropriate. Reddit shouldn’t be about putting people down, but a group of people sending cool, interesting, or funny things.”

This whole internet drama offers a moving example of how we cannot change or control other people or their words or behavior AND at the same time, by changing our own words and actions we can have a profound and moving impact. Balpreet in effect changed the terms of engagement. We are all better for it.

Do you have an inspiring story to share? If so, let me know! I look forward to sharing other examples where self-connection and responsibility lead to greater understanding and compassion.

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