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Confront your monster

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Jim Opionin By Jim Powers
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I’m not often surprised by the depravity of human beings, but it seems all too frequently another story comes along that makes me shake my head in frustration.

A Michigan school decided to violate their own policy and cut a 7-year-old child’s hair without the knowledge of her parent. The result was a $1 million dollar lawsuit against the school district, a librarian and a teacher’s assistant. The suit, which was settled out of court, alleged that the girl’s (who is bi-racial) constitutional rights were violated, racial discrimination, ethnic intimidation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and assault and battery.

It seems a classmate on a school bus took scissors and hacked off much of her hair one on side of her head off. Her father complained to the school’s principal, and then took her to a salon where her hair was styled with an asymmetrical cut that made the different lengths less apparent. A couple of days later she returned home from school with the hair on the other side cut. A teacher had decided they didn’t like the look, apparently, and cut her hair.

It is baffling that a teacher would do such a thing. But it’s not the legal or even ethical issues with cutting a 7-year old’s hair without parental approval and in violation of your own policy that I want to focus on. That was resolved when the school settled with the father rather than go to trial in a lawsuit. Let’s consider that the staff involved in this were monsters.

Seems strong language, right? Consider that this little girl was singled out among her friends by people that were relative strangers to her, and without considering the agency or feelings of the child, cut her hair because they didn’t like the style.

She said she didn’t understand why they were doing it but didn’t think it was right. They treated her at best as less valuable than themselves, and at worse like a pet dog that the groomer had hacked up, with a complete lack of compassion or empathy. I can’t imagine people like that working with children every day is a good thing.

The unexamined life is a terrible waste. For many of us, though, circumstances in our life eventually force us to confront who we really are. And when we confront ourselves, we confront a monster. And it’s a monster that will cause us infinite misery if we don’t keep it on a short leash.

When I was 21, as a too young pastor, I frequently needed to provide spiritual help and comfort to people at the worst times of their lives. Most of the time I knew intellectually the words to say and the actions to take to provide some comfort. Until a church member lost an adult child to suicide. I failed spectacularly and tragically because I had never confronted my monster. My intellect alone was not up to the task.

By nature, I’m not a very emotional person. I am not naturally very empathetic or compassionate. I knew at age 21 what those things looked like in others, and could mimic them, but it was superficial. I could fake it until I confronted a situation where I needed the real thing. It was then that I finally had to confront my character flaw. It wasn’t easy. But I truly wanted to help people, so I could not run away.

So, instead of emotionally distancing myself from these situations, I leaned into them, consciously experiencing the feelings of people in pain. I thought about how they must feel, what that loss would feel like to me if it were a parent or a friend. And over time, and the loss of people close to me, I learned to allow myself to feel empathy and compassion. My nature is still the same. I can still slip backwards if I’m not conscious of how I am reacting. But I’ve learned to keep my monster on a short lease. Because it’s face is pretty ugly.

It seems to me that our society, probably because of social media, has instead of encouraging us to hold tight control of our monster, unleased those monsters completely on the world.

Social media seems to pull out the worst from us, probably because that computer or phone screen gives us the illusion that it looks out on the real world, when it is just a mirror reflecting ourselves. Our compassion and empathy, for others and ourselves, have been taken from us by algorithms that need our rage and anger to keep us glued to our screens.

We cannot survive as a society if we are willing to cut a 7-year-old child’s hair simply because we don’t like it. We can’t be a cohesive society if we do not have compassion and empathy for other human beings. We cannot be human beings unless we have compassion and empathy for ourselves. We are being manipulated for political and economic motives to hate each other, rather than work together for common good.

In the end, we are all just flawed human beings struggling to find our way through life.

Jim Powers writes an opinion column. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.

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