I’m not usually one for New Year’s resolutions–it seems to me that life is much more about the choices we make every day. But the other day an infographic in the Washington Post magazine caught my eye, a comparison of the most common resolutions, according to some survey. I expected to see dieting or exercising at the top of the list…but instead the most common resolution was “be a better person.”
Be a better person. Must be why we often see a little spike in visitors at WES in early January; people are looking for ways to live out their intentions, and after all, ethical is our middle name. And I do believe that we can be a help with a resolution like that. I believe that it makes a difference, being part of a community like ours, getting to think each week about our deepest values, and surrounding oneself with others who are trying to live by those values. But I also think it’s a lot more complicated than it might seem.
Every so often a WES member will ask to meet with me to talk about a personal challenge, not just because they are seeking support or a listening ear, but because they want some advice on what the right thing is to do. And I also hear from folks regularly with feedback about the times when I give “advice” in a bigger way, for instance when I’m delivering a platform about some social justice issue. I sometimes joke that my goal is to receive concerned feedback in equal amounts from people thinking I’m too radical and people thinking I’m too conservative–at least that way I figure I’m somewhere in the middle.
Actually, it’s not entirely a joke (well, the part about that being a goal is a joke; really, when speaking about social justice I try to speak with integrity from my own, evolving understanding). The truth is that WES, like any Ethical Society, has people with differing opinions on how, exactly, to be ethical…how to “be a better person.” We share some deep core values–like the worth of every person, and the idea that we are all connected–but we interact with those values in different ways, often based on our experiences in the world, our innate personalities, our families of origin, even the reading and study that we’ve done. The progressive community nationally is having important and sometimes challenging conversations about the best way to move forward in an often hostile world, whether to work inside the system for change or whether to imagine and build a new system, and even what kind of language to use when discussing how to address injustice and how to move forward towards a society that values each and every person. What terminology or language helps people on the margins feel included? What language perpetuates the existing barriers or sets up additional ones?
I have my own biases and beliefs, of course–and WES folks hear them regularly, at platform or in conversations with me. But although my voice is a “loud” one at WES, it’s certainly not the only one. While I suspect we are all here to be a better person, how each member of WES answers that call, and all of the questions that come with it, can look very different. One of the things I’m interested in, more than deciding what the answers to these big questions ought to be, is fostering an environment at WES where we can talk openly, thoughtfully and courageously about them. And more important than even that is remembering that, when we don’t agree (and even with the most respectful discussion and thoughtful listening, we are not going to always agree), we remember that WES is still a community together. A community of learning, wondering, disagreeing, caring, courageous people.
Because the truth is, no one actually knows precisely how to be a better person. No one knows the “right” way to work against racism, or to heal the divisions in our country, the perfect language to use or how to be in solidarity with those on the margins. If we knew the right way, we’d all do that, fix the problems, and be home in time for dinner. Instead, we are muddling through, arguing about the tactics, messing up and trying something different, studying and learning, living out of our own experiences, trying hard and always listening for the stories that change our mind, too.
I’m not sure all of that makes a very appealing resolution: be a complicated, thoughtful, passionate, engaged, messy, open-minded person. But at least I know it’s one resolution I’ll be able to keep.
Amanda Poppei, Senior Leader