I saw the movie by Lee Daniels, “The Butler” over the weekend. I was profoundly moved by it. Over the years, and for many reasons, I have become very sensitized to the plight of the marginalized, abused, disadvantaged and under-resourced in society. So much so, that it has completely changed the direction of my personal and professional lives. “The Butler” gave me a small glimpse inside the world of suffering that the African-americans endured as slaves, and as the fight for civil rights continued on into the 60s and 70s.
Seeing scenes of rape, murder, torture, hatred, injustice throughout the movie stirred up a great deal of compassion and empathy inside of me. I have never experienced the physical abuse, and rank injustice that was presented in the movie, but I have endured some injustice as a result of my stuttering affliction. You can read more specifics about that here, but, suffice it to say, I know a little about what it means to be judged by a physical characteristic that I was born with. I know about the frustration of being thought less of in so many scenarios, and I have many times been held back from being able to fully utilize the gifts and talents inside of me.
My experiences with a life-long stuttering problem has given me a great deal of compassion and empathy for those who feel judged, and who feel like they are “less-than” others. Again, that is not to say that I am familiar with most of the horrific kinds of abuse and injustice the African-americans in this country suffered during slavery and the ensuing fight for civil rights; however, I can feel the pain of unfairness, and I can resonate with the longing to be judged by what is inside, instead of being judged by what is on the outside.
The main character in “The Butler” actually lives to see the day, when an African-american is actually a contender for the presidency of the United States. You can feel his inspiration, excitement, vindication, and joy as so many years of suffering become undone, and in a single moment – the dream of equality, the dream of being judged by what is inside, instead of what is outside comes true, manifested in the election of an African-american president.
As a life-long conservative, and Republican-leaning citizen, I remember bristling at the notion that someone would vote for someone just because of the color of their skin. I remember thinking that candidates should be judged by their stance on issues, not the color of their skin. Back then I had no connection to the exuberance and pride felt by minorities, as they saw an African-american elected president. To me, a democrat was elected, and that was a failure, regardless of race.
A couple years after that historic election in 2008, I found myself at a Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) meeting in Aurora, IL. Over the last few years, I had been increasing my involvement in participating in strategies to help the poor here locally, and globally. While the CCDA was a “left-leaning” organization, I had a great deal of respect for them. I could resonate with many elements of their mission and vision for helping the poor here in America.
One of my heros in the CCDA organization, Noel Castellanos was going to be presenting at the meeting, and I was excited to get to see him in person. We did a little meet and greet in the beginning, and I got to shake his hand. That night, the audience had a much higher concentration of white, conservative attendees, that a normal CCDA meeting would have – many of whom were made aware of the event through a church in Naperville. Noel was briefed of that demographic reality before he ever got out there, and his pre-speech mingling confirmed the accuracy of the earlier briefing.
Noel was introduced and called up to give his spiel. He began articulating the mission and vision of CCDA – why they do what they do, how they do it, what they do, what they don’t do, etc. He intermingled a few personal stories during his presentation. One of the last stories he told, was about one of the greatest moments of his life. That moment, was being in Chicago for the acceptance speech on the night of the election of then, President-elect, Barack Obama. I remember him asking the audience, “Please hang in there with me. I know I am probably going to lose you all here when I say this, but I hope I can keep a few of you.”
He went out to explain the feelings of being a minority in this country, of being in situations of frustration when you are judged by what is on the outside, rather than the inside. He described the pain of the after-effects of the earlier injustices against minorities, in the higher joblessness rates, lower graduation rates, lower pay, and lack of hope and opportunity. He described the elation and joy of seeing a fellow minority, overcome all of those barriers and obstacles, and having the opportunity, and the privilege of being considered, and freely voted in as the president of the United States. He was staring off into the distance as he spoke, and I could tell he was kind of reliving that night in the current moment. He actually had tears forming in his eyes.
Seeing him there, dozen or so feet away from me, and seeing his reaction, and hearing the passion in his voice, enabled me to connect with him ,and that issue, in a much deeper and more meaningful way than I ever could have before.. I could feel his pain, the release of that pain, and the hope that was born in that night. My empathy and compassion for him in that moment caused tears to well up in my eyes as well. I get emotional just writing about it now, and I got emotional hearing the butler talk about that moment in the movie.
The butler, Noel Castellanos, and many minorities see President Obama first and foremost as a powerful role model. As a symbol that, here in America, even minorities, even people who have suffered injustice and persecution, can be lifted up, and can be judged by what is on the inside, not what is on the outside. That they can, indeed, actually “do it.” They can become anything they want to be. They can be inspired by President Obama to pursue, their dreams. They can finally believe that they are able to fully utilize and unleash all of the gifts and talents inside of them, and be judged for who they are and what they can do, rather than by their physical characteristics.
I can resonate with that. I can get inspired by that. I can share the joy and excitement of that, and I can respect the moment. I have learned (and it has taken years to learn) to first, seek to understand the context, and perspective of those on the other side of an issue, before rendering a judgment. To walk a mile in the shoes of those I do not agree with, before articulating my points of why my positions are right, and theirs are wrong. That has become a great blessing in my life over the years, and has even further released me to love and serve those around me. I now understand what it means to be an “advocate” for the someone, to be a champion for the under-resourced and disadvantaged.
I can examine an issue, and not look at the black and white, but look for the gray. I can now immerse myself in the context with compassion and empathy, and see issues as give and take, rather than right and wrong. I have come to respect the left, and the principles by which they operate. I don’t agree 100% with what is articulated by the left; but I am also freed from being a mindless, kool-aid drinking, automoton of the right as well. I can think for myself. I can finally understand the truth about any issue – issues are complex, and have pros and cons, give and take, benefits and drawbacks. The complex issues of our days cannot be 100% one way or another. We need compromise to come to a proper solution. We need more gray. We need more context and perspective. We need more compassion and empathy. Not because we are weak, but because it is the only way we will arrive at the correct conclusions.
We need less, “I win, you lose” and more, “We both win some, both lose some.” We need to completely absorb ourselves in understanding why people think differently than we do. That is the path to true enlightenment and growth. You already understand why you think you are right. Go out there and have the courage and the guts to fully comprehend and understand why others think you are wrong. If you earnestly seek the perspective of “the other side” I can promise you that you will become a different person. It will further galvanize some of your most closely held principles and beliefs, and it will open your mind to a whole new world of possibilities. The possibility that maybe you are not 100% right about every single thing. You may actually learn something, and you will likely find yourself changing your perspective on some things in the process.