How to transcend the noise of childish debates

Meryl on the need for human decency

After her moving speech at the Golden Globes this year, most of the media-coverage seems to have missed the heart of Meryl Streep’s message. As usual, many of us were distracted by what was said, and who she was referring to.

But something greater happened here: in a poignant, powerful way, Meryl showed us how to transcend the noise of infantile debates, and meet the challenge of a mad world in 2017 with dignity and integrity.

How to be a decent human being, by Meryl Streep

1. Before anything else, own the fact that you are human

When you strip down the glamour, hype and dress-up of Hollywood, you are left with a room filled with people, just like you. Humans who may differ in their level of income, fame and job description, but who are — in the important ways — not different at all.

Each of them grew up with unique challenges: some were raised by single parents; others had to compete with seven siblings, and none of them had control over their race, gender or ethnicity. Each of them had opportunities and choices. None of them can be excused for the choices they have made, and neither can they be blamed for the opportunities they have been given. In these ways, they are no different than you.

We are not moved by Meryl’s speech because of her fame. She does not even try to rally us up. No, we are moved by the moral weight of her message, and her skillful delivery of truth. She does not hide, she does not shy away: she takes responsibility for her privilege, and shows her frailty. That is how she owns her humanity.

Questions for reflection:
- If you were one of the nominees at the Golden Globes, what might Meryl have said about you? What are challenges you would have had to overcome, or choices you would have had to make? 
- What personal qualities and experiences make you different, an outsider, and unique?
- Which opportunities are you not taking?
- What circumstances are you blaming for your failures?

2. Your empathy determines your greatness

“Nothing is more important than empathy for another human being’s suffering. Nothing. Not a career, not wealth, not intelligence, certainly not status. We have to feel for one another if we’re going to survive with dignity.” -Audrey Hepburn-

If you had to list all the qualities possessed by the greatest humans on earth — the likes of Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi — empathy would be in the top five.

Empathy makes us human. Without it, we are unable to love. With it, we are unable to abuse and oppress.

Meryl points out that an actor’s only job is to enable us to feel with others: to help us experience empathy with people who are different from us. I agree. It may be a performance, a show, and often entertaining, but the highest call of an actor, is to open the doors of our hearts, so we can enter the lives of others, and discover new ways to experience empathy.

Empathy exercise:
- Take five minutes, and try and put yourself in the shoes of someone you dislike for a few minutes. Just imagine what it feels like to wake up like them, talk like them, walk like them, think like them, feel like them.
- Now, do a diary entry as if you are them: but your goal is to write about their life, as if they have the
most noble, pure, loving intentions. Start any sentence with good things, such as: “The good I want to do in the world…” or “I am loving in this way…” or “My family is important to me, so…” 
- The purpose is to try and find how good intentions could be connected to behaviour that you judge as bad / annoying / irritating. More than that, the purpose is for you to see them as another fellow human again.

3. Transcend the noise

How and why you win, is more important than if you win. If you can’t answer the How and the Why with integrity, it is better to lose. -Draj-

This is the stickiest part of Meryl’s speech. It’s always difficult to confront someone’s behaviour, while remaining respectful. It’s too easy to get personal, and turn a healthy, mature debate, into a mud-slinging contest.

The difference between transcending the noise, and debating in an immature way, though, lies in the ‘how’ and the ‘why’: do you try to upstage, outshine and insult someone, or do you transcend — excel and ‘rise above’ the situation?

How Meryl transcended:

- She was dignified and respectful: pointing out behaviour, without personally attacking anyone. (“the performance stunned me.”)
- She mentioned how the behaviour affected her personally: owning her own experience, without blame-shifting. (“it [the performance] sank it’s hooks in my heart”)
- She gave due respect to the position, distinguishing it from the person.(“this person asked to sit in the most respected seat in our country”)
- She spoke up for the weak, without attacking the strong, mentioning only objective facts. (“he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back”)
- She showed compassion. (“it broke my heart”)
- She never attacked anyone, but only addressed the behaviour, and the consequences of such behaviour. (“this instinct to humiliate…filters down into the public, and gives permission for other people to do the same thing.”)
- She spoke about values and intentions. (“disrespect invites disrespect; violence incites violence”)
- She called others to accountability (“we need the principled press to hold power to account”)

If you want to pursue true greatness in 2017, make sure you are running after the right kind of greatness. None of us are any better or worse than the best president, or worst actor — we’re all humans who make good and bad choices along the way. It’s too easy to attack, counterattack, debate, defend and raise your opinion. But it takes true character and maturity to rise above the noise, and live a life of true grace and integrity.

So, whether your new year’s resolutions are to lose weight, make millions or find a girlfriend, do so with dignity. Dignity, like gemstones, is running out. How will you hold onto and cultivate yours?