Ask The Question

by Robin Mitzcavitch, Director of Religious Exploration

I asked the question to the Coming of Age teens : How do you stand up for something that is important to you? We were talking about justice and how people have things that they are concerned with in the world on a variety of levels. What can you do about gigantic issues like racism, climate change, poverty, hunger, animal rights?  

I got some answers. They said that they could raise awareness about an issue by education. They could sign petitions. They could protest. 

I asked another question. What happens if you witness someone you know, maybe a person at school, someone in your extended family, or even a friend, become a part of something that goes against that very thing you want to stand for? It’s difficult to directly address a conflicting opinion with someone who is apparently “not on your side” of a justice issue. It’s uncomfortable, but it need not be dangerous or impossible.

We read an article about standing up for your beliefs in the right way. Some of the tips within the article were:

Don’t judge. You or the other people involved are not bad people. They’re just partaking in something a lesser version of themselves would do. That doesn’t decrease their (or your) inherent value.

Do empathize. No one, including yourself, makes choices that they believe are bad for them. Choices are made because they were the best option at the time for whatever reason. Pain, loneliness, fear, and convenience can be powerful reasons for making choices. Try to understand the reasons for the choices. Ask questions to understand them.

Don’t boast. Don’t you dare for one minute think that you’re better than someone else because you have made different choices. When you point the finger, there’s three pointing back. So watch where you point that thing.

Do relate. No matter how different you are from the other, there’s something you have in common. Find that and build from there.

Don’t rush. Don’t stand up for something in the heat of the moment, in a rush, or with a hot head.

Do prepare. Get yourself into a renewing feeling such as compassion, care, healthy concern, forgiveness, faith, or appreciation. Speak with a cool head and a warm heart.

Don’t correct. No one likes being told that they’re wrong. No one likes being told what to do.

Do transform. The way to the mind is through the heart. Connect to their hearts. Then let their own hearts change their own minds.

In class,  I gave an example of a circumstance that someone had described to me recently.  Two children were having a disagreement about an action, and one called that action “gay.” The adult who witnessed this asked the child why he chose that word “gay”? She asked if there was another word that he could have used, because calling something you dislike “gay” is like saying that a person from the LBGTQI community is bad, and she was sure he didn’t mean that. He didn’t. The adult kindly raised awareness by asking a respectful question, without creating more stress and tension, shame or hurt.

A young teen in my class raised her hand and said, “Robin, I was wondering why you said LQBTQI, but didn’t use the A+ at the end of those letters?”  She asked a question. I had not included the A+ at the end, and I asked her to explain the A+ to the room, which she did as including people who are asexual and aromantic or an ally to the community.  I thanked her for educating me on the current letters used. This is a time when an example comes to life in real time and it works. No curriculum planning here! Just a natural and good exchange that went right. This young teen had stood up for her cause and raised awareness.

Sometimes we have to practice how to ask the right question. We need to understand that being uninformed or “ignorant” is just that, and an excellent opportunity to have a conversation.

A first grade child at an afterschool art program which I’m involved with in the Main South area of Worcester asked me to help him make a paper airplane. When the plane was made, he began to decorate it. When he was done, he proudly showed me the plane. On the side, I read the name of the plane, very misspelled, but I knew what it said. The first word was the other word for a female dog, and the second word was another word for a donkey. I was taken aback. I said, “Let’s color over these words and start again.” 

The young boy looked confused. Another teacher happened to walk by, saw it, and said “What does that say?” The young boy said the words. The other teacher took the airplane, crumpled it, and threw it in the trash and asked, “Is there someone here who taught you to write that?”  The boy, with wide and sad eyes, said that his father taught him because that was the name of a car in the video game they play together. He really wasn’t aware that this was something wrong. The other teacher softened. She explained that those were words which grown-ups may use, but we don’t want them to be used here. He understood.

But it’s a lot more difficult when you’re not dealing with children. I sometimes try to imagine that people who go against other peoples’ rights are like this young child, or even me: unaware, uniformed. I earnestly hope that raising awareness and asking good questions can help shine light on the injustice. Pointing fingers, fighting, shaming, and attacking on social media should not be the answer. That kind of action is the result of the stress, anger, and frustration that we feel when we see an inequity.

But, standing up for the right thing in the wrong way leads to more anxiety, stress, anger, and fear. It can backfire so that you don’t change minds, you harden hearts. You widen the gap. And it’s not just you, it’s all of us, and it’s a challenging road.

Our chalice lighting words for our COA class, this past Sunday were:

As we search for justice, meaning, and purpose,

May we remember that justice, meaning, and purpose

First begins when we deeply listen to one another.

I’ll ask the question, then, I’ll listen.

Learning All the Time,