Let’s Start Imperfectly or We’ll Never Start

Many of you will have seen an article on the front page of the print edition of the New York Times this morning. Here is the online version of the story by Lydia Polgreen, Trading Privilege for Privation, Family Hits a Nation’s Nerve.

It’s about a young white family’s choice to spend a month in a shack living in solidarity with black South Africans, next door to their own part-time housekeeper. This “experiment in radical empathy” took them far from the relatively close, gated community that is their usual home in Pretoria, South Africa. To the horror of their own parents, they took along their children, 4 and 2. I loved this quote: “‘People might say it is irresponsible to bring children,’ Mr. Hewitt [the husband] said. ‘But I would rather say it is irresponsible to raise children in this country who can’t cross boundaries.'”

The article delineates the debate that is raging over whether this is a sensationalist stunt or a valuable exercise in empathy. I vote for the latter; how about you?

The couple, Ena and Julian Hewitt, admitted that their motives were to change themselves. How do any of us change except by cognitive dissonance or disruption? Inertia keeps us in our ruts, seeing the same people, thinking the same way… until something propels us out of those pathways into new possibilities. The Hewitts simply designed their own, not insignificant, disruption. Which is more than most of us willingly sign up for. 

One of the implications of the article is that people have mixed motives and can’t be relied upon to be doing an experiment of this sort with purely altruistic motives. Well, of course we can’t. That’s part of the human condition.

I’m advocating for just starting where we are and admitting that we don’t have perfect motives, that we do have agendas and blind spots, that we only, ever will love others imperfectly. Yet to try to see others’ viewpoints and to understand their lives a little bit more is valor, is a step towards change, is a victory for love.

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