Graduation season is upon us. Halls are filled with students eager to begin the next chapter of their lives. Stages are filled with well-wishers as podium after podium across this country will, for at least a few moments, house someone who will encourage the graduating class to seek after their dreams, live their lives to their fullest potential, and to remember that they have the ability to make a positive difference. These are important and timeless words, but so often, their meaning is lost in the noise of living life in a culture that puts a lot of the focus on the “me” instead of the “us” or “we.”
The desire to make changes for the good is not exclusive to our graduates. In fact, it is not unusual to hear people say in all walks of life that they want the world to be better. However, “better” does not happen by magic. Better happens by choice. If we, as a society, want things to be different, then we have to be different. We have to make the conscious effort to choose differently when confronted by a “normal” situation that we know is wrong.
Brene’ Brown, a researcher at The University of Houston Graduate of Social Work Program, has said, “If you want to make a difference, the next time you see someone being cruel to another human being, take it personally. Take it personally because it is personal.” To ignore or excuse cruelty is the same as giving it permission to thrive, so making it personal helps protect us from that tendency to rationalize cruelty as insignificant on inconsequential.
But here is the thing about cruelty. Sometimes it’s obvious, but more often it is subtle, and instead of launching a direct attack, it goes after the very fabric of our society as it whispers that “I” is more important than “you.”
Cruelty is found in a dorm as college student after college student steps over an unconscious and partially clothed woman sprawled out on the floor – not one stopping to check on her, call someone to help her or even cover her up. http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/crime/2015/01/15/whats-happened-at-the-vanderbilt-rape-trial-a-day-by-day-look/21822873/
It is found in a car, with an intoxicated driver tweeting “2 drunk 2 care” before ending the lives of two best friends in a head-on collision. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/pothead-princess-tweeted-2-drunk-2-care-fatal-drunken-wreck-arrested-booked-5-months-article-1.1749462
It is found in the privacy of a home, where a husband tells his wife she deserves to be cut by a razor, set on fire, beat half to death and left to die – all while their children are being forced to watch and participate. http://www.nbcdfw.com/news/local/Fort-Worth-Officer-Arrested-in-Domestic-Violence-Case-262419431.html
It is found in school hallways were those who are perceived as different or weaker are called names like “slut,” hit with soda cans, have books knocked out of their hands and are told to kill themselves on social media sites. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/30/us/30bully.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
It is found in communities that put more emphasis on entertainment than on safety – opening doors to those who want to take advantage of our children. http://www.npr.org/2011/11/08/142111804/penn-state-abuse-scandal-a-guide-and-timeline
So, how do we make cruelty personal?
First, we have to recognize it for what it is. Whenever we place our own wants in front of someone else’s needs, we are flirting with making a cruel choice. There is nothing wrong with obtaining happiness, but that should never come at the expense of someone else. When we get behind the wheel of a car drunk or we turn a blind eye to taunting behavior, we are saying to the world at large, “You are less important than I.”
Second, we have to have the courage to recognize that we all have the potential to make cruel choices. When our choices are driven out of selfishness rather than empathy, when a consequence to a choice makes us feel like we need to minimize, justify, blame or deny our behavior, or when we are considering engaging in an action because we don’t think we’ll get caught, we can know that we are flirting with cruelty. Taking a drunk person to our dorm room and inviting friends to sexually assault them is indefensible – regardless of what the individual was doing prior to the assault.
Third, we have to choose a different route – no matter what. This is hard because it not only requires us to challenge the social norms of the given situation but it often means we have to choose differently than our friends. Rarely do these decisions take place in a vacuum, and doing the right thing can be lonely. Calling the authorities, pulling down clothes to cover essential body parts, checking to make sure someone is alive, taking keys, seeking out those who do not fit in, telling a neighbor that they are cared for, helping to put safe guards in place – all of these sound small – but these are the actions that ignite change.
So during this season of launching our graduates, may there be a call to action for all of us – the call to choose better and change our world.
Written By: Valerie Craig, Co-Founder and Director of Education http://www.tnvoicesforvictims.org