Oppression and Sue

Thoughts on the mindset through which we engender change

When I look at a tree, I don’t see a static thing, but a process. Something living that moves, imperceptibly slow, from seed to sprout to tree to charcoal. When I look at the rest of life, at individuals and societies for example, I see the same thing: entities always becoming the next iteration of themselves. I love this process of continual becoming because I grew up in a world that resisted creative change.

I was born in apartheid South Africa, an oppressive system bent on creating a unified world through the use of control. For those of you unfamiliar with the mindset of an oppressive system, let me introduce you. Meet Oppression.

Let’s get to know him as he works in his garden.

If oppression was a gardener, he would start by creating a sense of scarcity and lack. He would bring in a fearful atmosphere, a sense of unease and anxiety, alerting everyone that we need to watch out, pay attention to what we’re doing, and make sure we do it quickly.

As he opens his seed packets, he makes sure each seed knows it is imperfect and that he can’t help but disapprove. He makes it clear that he distrusts them and believes they will never succeed without his help.

As the seeds start to reveal their tender sprouts, he demands perfection. When things are urgent, you cannot make a mistake. You can’t take the creative route, you have to be perfect from the get-go. He uses tools like criticism, judgement and blame to instill a sense of guilt and shame. He fosters a belief that says “I am not enough” to keep everyone in quiet compliance.

Lastly, whenever he sees any sign of resistance, anger, or any other strong emotion, he publicly squashes it. Right there and often violently, the plucked sprout is made an example. This helps Oppression shows how powerful he is, and provides a cautionary tale for anyone who dares, just dares, to move outside his wishes.

It is therefore not surprising that from an early age I wanted to know, “How can I change the world?” And that sounds like a really great question, doesn’t it? But there is a tiny problem here.

Over time I realized my attempts to answer the question “How can I change the world?” were anything but innocent. I could not help but answer this question with the mindset of oppression. Not because I am evil or stupid, but because the culture that raised me also lives inside me. And many good people and institutions are like me. We intend to do good work, we intend to make the world a better place, yet we use the blunt tools our culture handed to us. Whenever we use the tools of oppression, no matter how good our intentions, we still oppress.

I’ve marched in streets, I’ve knocked on doors, I’ve worked inside communities. Yet through so many of these well-intentioned interventions created more distance than closeness, more us vs. them, more guilt, more pressure and an enlarged sense of brokenness.

And I am tired of this worldview and way of life. I am tired of believing we have so much reason to fear. I am tired of being rushed down the corridor of life, chased by everything urgent, chased by the sense that we will never do enough, get it right or have permission to explore deeply. Constant fear and urgency diminishes our creative fire — the very thing that can create the new.

I’m tired of the distrusting relationship I have with the world — expecting the worst of those in power, feeling sorry for those without. I’m tired of seeing people only for the history and identity they wear, and being blind to the goodness they embody. When we believe our story about others, we have no reason to get to know or work with them as they truly are.

I’m tired of standing in an adversarial relationship with life. I’m tired of creating distance as I judge, blame or criticize both others and myself in anemic attempt to shape us into something better. When we feel ashamed, we disable our ability to relate openly to the world. When we shame others, we breed conformity and cut off true connection.

And oh, am I tired of the comic book belief that life is either good or bad and that we are entitled to declare which is which and eliminate whatever we perceive as evil. I’m tired of the belief that some people matter more than others. I’m done with the idea that we can dispose of our difficulties. And I’m tired of starched silences. I’m tired of not hearing what the world aches to say. When we simplify, when we resist what is difficult, painful, angry, hurting, we close ourselves to the invitation to be transformed.

My disillusionment with oppression kindled a hunger inside me for something better. For many years I’ve been looking for another worldview, another way of living and of creating change. And I have found one. I’m uncertain what to call this new way. Maybe it’s liberty, it could possibly be love, or justice of creative inspiration. Since I don’t know her exact name yet, I am calling her Sue.

She might look unassuming, but watch her as she works in her garden.

Sue starts her work by creating a sense of ease, of spaciousness. She emanates peace that fills the fields around her, inviting a sense of wonder, reverence and possibility into the garden.

She is acceptance herself. When she meets her new seeds she cannot help but love them, marveling at their different shapes. Wondering where they might come from and what they might become. Imagining how good life might be as they blossom and bear fruit.

As the seeds grow, she is right there for them. She is supportive, when it’s hot, dry and difficult, she encourages them to keep going. She is open and patient, she allows them to grow into their own shape and do so in their own time. She is wise. She creates a growing space, but does not help unnecessarily.

When there is any trouble in the garden, she courageously move towards it. She is willing to enter into difficult dialogues and be changed by the conversation. She is willing to risk rejection by asking for what she needs and setting clear boundaries.

I love gardening with Sue. I love feeling at ease, touching the spaciousness and abundance of life, not being pinned down by a narrow fearful story of the future. I love not knowing. I love being curious about what might happen as opposed to being stuck in agitated disapproval or judgement. I love that I can learn to trust myself and others. I love that I can become a friend and ally to life, partnering with it, offering my gifts to help it succeed. I love being absolved from a savior complex where I hold myself responsible to fix messes. I love the vulnerability and transformational power of honesty. I love that we can talk about things we didn’t dare mention before, that we can say things like “I am sorry” or “I forgive you.” I love that I am no longer forcing change, but continually being changed and enabling change as I engage in life.

I find it a curious thing that inside me, and inside the world, live both ways. I can force my idea about life onto the world. I can disapprove of things and work towards compliance. And I can also choose to get to know and get to love and participate in whatever wonderful shape this life is able to take next.

And I know exactly which future I am moving towards. Which future are you moving towards? Which set of tools do you use to create change?

This talk was written for the Six x Ate dinner series at the City of Asylum in Pittsburgh, August 2016.


Thank you for reading! I’m uncertain about using the word “Oppression.” I’m thinking of changing it to “Control” as a way to make the concept more relatable. If you have any thoughts on this, please tweet me!