I always used to ask my students to imagine a world in which everyone was the same. It never took them long to point out that that would be the Most. Boring. Thing. Ever. They used to point out that if everyone was the same, what would be the point of having a conversation or forming relationships? What would be the point of falling in (or out) of love if the next person in line was just the same as the last? And they’re right. When we are not challenged, we don’t grow. It’s really that simple.
So how do we grow? We grow when our long-held beliefs are challenged, and we realize that they are no longer serving us or our fellow humans. Sometimes our beliefs are challenged by people we love, and other times they are challenged by people we can’t stand. If we are lucky, they are even challenged by people we don’t know (what better mirror than the reflection of a stranger?) And if we are wise, we look at each challenge as an opportunity to reflect and become better for that introspection. At the moment, however, it seems that our lack of willingness to challenge one another in productive and honest ways is failing us. I don’t mean trolling people on the Internet or insulting people who disagree with us – those things are reactionary, not productive. I mean truth telling. Uncomfortable conversations. Facing the prospect of losing followers, friends, or even family.
We are living in what is arguably the most volatile period of many of our lifetimes. Truths and lies about injustice, inequality, the environment, and even the truth itself have penetrated our collective psyche in such a way that we have become convinced that we humans who share responsibility for moving society forward are at an impasse. Much of this could be addressed, at least in part, by leaders who publicly acknowledge uncomfortable truths, even at a personal cost.
We are a divided nation. Our justice system is grossly unjust, especially for people of color, those with less access to power, and those who live in poverty. Our planet is damaged, perhaps to the point of no return. And we have decided that separating ourselves into arbitrary human factions is preferable to acknowledging that we are all one human race whose fate is globally interconnected. Yet, we can’t unite if there is no contrition by those who have acted with evil intent. We cannot forgive oppressors who refuse to acknowledge their role in keeping others down in order to maintain their own power or status. As Pope Paul VI famously said, “If you want peace, work for justice.”
This doesn’t mean there’s no path forward. Every major obstacle in history has seemed insurmountable at some point. It’s natural for humans under duress to want to shut down and give up. But the remarkable thing is that by and large, we don’t. Something in our collective spirit knows that there are things worth fighting for, and the best leaders, past and present, have asked us to rise to those occasions. Whether it is Greta Thunberg telling us we must save our planet, John Lewis telling us we must save our democracy, Pope Francis telling us we must save our souls, Dr. Fauci telling us we must save each other, or any random seven year-old telling us we must save our humanity, true leaders speak hard truths. These leaders are often categorized primarily by race, gender, religion, or even age, but these are secondary characteristics. Their willingness to point out injustices and tell hard truths at a personal cost is foundational to what makes them great leaders. What matters is that we listen to these truths, acknowledge our responsibility, and take action to transform. It is up to us to open our ears to hear them.
Whether you are happy or unhappy about our current collective circumstance, there is always a chance to create positive change assuming, of course, that we are willing to confront some collective hard truths. Being open to this means your worldview might shift, and you and I might realize that we have been wrong about many, many things. It might mean that you or I need to apologize for past actions, attitudes, or beliefs. While that may seem scary, it is essential if we are to conquer the issues that continue to plague and divide us. The only way out is through, and that begins with honest, service-minded, compassionate leaders who remain true to their followers and their values.