Why do we do what we do?
Last week I was interviewed by a Jewish organization I adore and support.
In the past, I had a yearlong fellowship with them.
They were interviewing social activists to explore the roots of their social action.
They were asking questions about our identity and the reasons that motivate us to do the work that we do.
It's funny; when you're busy doing the work, you kind of forget why you do it. When things are going well, you get pleasure in the moment from a little success. Or, when the going gets tough, you ask yourself, “Why the hell am I doing this?!” Upset and depressed you actually question why. Why do I do what I do?
Trying to think of good answers, I wrote bullet point responses to a bunch of questions that they sent.
I do what I do because of my upbringing.
It has to do with my deep, Jewish beliefs and the moral compass that I was given by my parents.
It has to do with compassion, and, above all, it has to do with love.
As we were filming, my colleague (who I've only known through cyberspace and finally had the opportunity to meet in person) was listening to everything I was saying and then threw me a curve ball.
She asked, “What happens when you see people whose dignity has been taken away? How does that make you feel?”
I never thought of my girls in Juvie as having their dignity taken away.
There definitely have been very un-dignified moments. There have been times when probation officers have been rude to them, and to me.
There have been moments when the lack of freedom was definitely not pretty, not fun, not good.
But dignity, did they lose their dignity or was it taken away?
I remembered a session last year when I brought snacks, and the girls were being extremely obnoxious. When I made a comment about it someone said,
“It's jail Ms. That's how you behave in jail.”
I said, “No, that's not an excuse. You should not behave like that, even in jail.”
To that she answered, “Yes, you do, Ms. Oh, yes you do.”
I think about how incarceration is about punishment, but in many of the facilities that I have been in the punishment has manifested into taking people’s dignity away.
Then I think, the core of my work is based on my desire for people to have dignity, and self-respect, no matter what.
Even if they are incarcerated.
Even if they have done something bad.
Many, MANY will disagree with me on the last one.
But I really believe that we must learn to live and let live.
To respect all, even if we don’t understand.
Respect people for who they are, what they want, and not just by what they did.
I have been texting and talking to one of my girls who recently got out.
We have been trying to figure out when to meet.
I had promised her that upon her release she and I would get together.
She was kind of amazed that I was willing to do that.
And I told her that we would have lunch.
She thought that was hilarious and fantastic at the same time.
Finally, we set a time to meet.
She told me she was going to do something with a tattoo.
I immediately thought she was going to get her tattoo removed.
I got so excited when she told me about the tattoo, I said, “That is amazing. Why don’t we meet before your appointment? We can have lunch and, if you want, I will go in with you to get the tattoo removed.”
This is a new skill I have acquired, accompanying my girls to get the “tats” removed. Believe me, you do not want to be in the room where it happens!
She sends me a LOL in the text and says,
“Ms., I am not getting the tattoo removed. I am getting a new one.”
“OHHHHHHH,” I text back.
This is a kid who is working so hard to stay on track, to be good, to stay out of trouble.
Why another tattoo???
I think, but don’t ask, because that is not my question to ask.
Sometimes dignity is simply not asking.
We meet for lunch.
It was a little awkward at first, but it was very dignified.
We talk, and then we laugh. We laugh a lot.
This is a special one.
I listen, and my heart hurts for her struggle.
I say my piece regarding tattoos.
As she walks away, I wonder what she will do and I think about dignity.
It isn’t really rocket science.
Treat people the way you want to be treated.
Respect their choices, even if you disagree or wouldn’t make that choice.
Be kind. Be kind. Be kind.
Dignity has this tendency to sit inside kindness.
And listen, because self-respect and dignity sneak out and become present when a voice is heard.
A voice can only be heard, when someone listens.
So listen to the bullshit.
Listen to the pain.
Listen to the pulse that might barely be beating.
Listen to what you can’t comprehend.
Listen, and give dignity space to be.
Give dignity space, with the humility of your heart.
An open, accepting heart.
You will be surprised how dignified that will make you feel.