We don’t know anything.
We don’t know what it’s like to be someone else.
We can’t hear each other’s thoughts.
We can’t feel what others feel.
We can’t possibly understand what it’s like to be another person.
Our experiences are too different. Our character and personalities are unique.
We are not virtuous.
We are human and by nature are flawed.
We are impulsive and short-sighted.
We are judgmental and distrustful.
We are insensitive and overconfident.
We are wrong.
About our choices.
About the “good” we are doing.
About our ability to affect change.
About our role in the world.
Why do we believe that we can lead others to change their behavior? Why would we think that we can change the world? Why would an affluent white person from the suburbs know what is best for a black man from South East DC, or a poor Honduran woman, or a Ghanaian child?
We don’t. None of us do.
We have the power to change ourselves. We have the power to sacrifice. We have the power to be kind. And, we have the power to forge honest connections.
But we don’t have the power to save others.
Do-gooders fail to understand that generosity is not a substitute for justice. Sometimes what is required is to say who is in the wrong because at the core of poverty is an original sin: an injustice. Our legacy with slavery and discrimination, our history of interfering in other countries’ affairs, the very companies who we support through our consumption who then take advantage of the poor and powerless, make us complicit in the causes of poverty.
We need to own up to it.
We tried fintech, we tried cookstoves, we tried the Millennium Villages, we passed law after law, we have welfare and foreign aid, and we are constantly looking for the innovative and sexy “silver bullet.”
It’s not good enough. Not until we stand up and say it’s us, the privileged elite of the world, the 1% who own over 50% of the world’s wealth: we play a hand in the existence of these injustices. So now it’s time to step aside.
Healing begins with listening.
When you listen;
When you sit back and observe;
When you let others make decisions;
You start to build trust.
You allow others to make progress towards their potential.
You endorse their power and you open the path towards understanding.
It requires discipline and trust. It requires patience and faith.
But above all, it requires belief in human potential. That the less privileged can find their own way. That despite the odds, they can take control of their destiny. That, in many ways, they already have.
Thinking like this changes our role.
Instead of doing more good, let’s do less harm.
Instead of making suggestions, let’s listen.
Instead of being nice, let’s be honest.
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At the end of the day we are all broken. We yearn for meaning in our lives and often we search for meaning in our work. We can still find meaning as sidekicks.
Lilla Watson said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
To find liberation, we need to be honest with ourselves and with each other, we need to make uncomfortable sacrifices, and above all, we need to take a step back and listen.