Powerfully Vulnerable

I just had to share this amazing story! It is told by Adam Ericksen at the Raven Foundation website. Here it is, republished with kind permission:

The Internet can be a very mean place. But it can also lead us to grace.

BalpreetThe dichotomy of meanness and grace was recently displayed on the website reddit.com. The backstory goes like this: A man was waiting in line at airport security. He spotted Balpreet Kaur, a young woman who is a baptized Sikh and a student at Ohio State University. The man surreptitiously took out his phone, positioned the camera, and while Balpreet looked away, he took her picture. Then he posted it to Reddit’s humor section, called r/funny, with the caption, “i’m not sure what to conclude from this.” The picture quickly went viral and people made demeaning comments about Balpreet’s appearance.

What was “humorous” about Balpreet’s appearance? She has facial hair.

It’s a classic example of Internet scapegoating. The original poster, whose reddit username was “european_douchebag,” (Seriously! You couldn’t make that up!) wanted to invite his Reddit community to join him in demeaning Balpreet’s appearance, and his community was happy to join. Balpreet became their scapegoat. As the picture went viral, people began posting degrading comments about her. They accused her of being ugly, and in that accusation they began to feel a sense of their own beauty.

Are You Imitating or IdolizingBut scapegoating always provides a false sense of beauty. Scapegoating boils down to this: We know that we are “beautiful” by comparing ourselves with someone else that we consider “ugly.” Unfortunately, scapegoating in this way can be seen throughout human cultures. Every culture has arbitrary standards of beauty that lead to scapegoating. When our sense of beauty is based on these arbitrary standards, it leads us into the trap of scapegoating. This is the trap that “european_douchebag” and his community fell into, and it is a trap that we all fall into. Until someone has the sense to pull us out.

And that’s exactly what Balpreet did. A Facebook friend informed her about the picture on Reddit. After she found the image and read through some of the comments, she posted her own response to her image and the demeaning comments:

Hey, guys. This is Balpreet Kaur, the girl from the picture. I actually didn’t know about this until one of my friends told on facebook. If the OP [original poster] wanted a picture, they could have just asked and I could have smiled :) However, I’m not embarrassed or even humiliated by the attention [negative and positive] that this picture is getting because, it’s who I am. Yes, I’m a baptized Sikh woman with facial hair. Yes, I realize that my gender is often confused and I look different than most women. However, baptized Sikhs believe in the sacredness of this body – it is a gift that has been given to us by the Divine Being [which is genderless, actually] and, must keep it intact as a submission to the divine will. Just as a child doesn’t reject the gift of his/her parents, Sikhs do not reject the body that has been given to us. By crying ‘mine, mine’ and changing this body-tool, we are essentially living in ego and creating a separateness between ourselves and the divinity within us. By transcending societal views of beauty, I believe that I can focus more on my actions. My attitude and thoughts and actions have more value in them than my body because I recognize that this body is just going to become ash in the end, so why fuss about it? When I die, no one is going to remember what I looked like, heck, my kids will forget my voice, and slowly, all physical memory will fade away. However, my impact and legacy will remain: and, by not focusing on the physical beauty, I have time to cultivate those inner virtues and hopefully, focus my life on creating change and progress for this world in any way I can. So, to me, my face isn’t important but the smile and the happiness that lie behind the face are. :-) So, if anyone sees me at OSU, please come up and say hello. I appreciate all of the comments here, both positive and less positive because I’ve gotten a better understanding of myself and others from this. Also, the yoga pants are quite comfortable and the Better Together t-shirt is actually from Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that focuses on storytelling and engagement between different faiths. :) I hope this explains everything a bit more, and I apologize for causing such confusion and uttering anything that hurt anyone.

Love is not love until love is vulnerable (Theodore Roethke)Balpreet’s response was so powerful. It nearly brought me to tears for two reasons. First, Balpreet has a strong sense of her own beauty. She knows her beauty is not dependent upon arbitrary cultural standards. Rather, her beauty is dependent upon something else: The “Divine Being” that has made her body beautifully sacred – and has made everyone’s body beautifully sacred.

The second reason that my 33 year old eyes nearly teared up was that because Balpreet believes in the sacredness of all human bodies, she broke the cycle of scapegoating. Now, I could easily understand if she responded to “european_douchebag” with her own resentful meanness by saying, “your username is appropriate, you freakin’ jerk!” But if she did, she would simply be imitating “european_douchebag” in defining her own goodness against his meanness. Fortunately, Balpreet didn’t imitate him. Instead, she imitated the “Divine Being” who doesn’t reject any body, but rather makes all bodies beautifully sacred. Even the body of a man with the username “european_douchebag.”

Here’s where the story gets even better – her gracious response softened his heart. He actually imitated her response by responding with a gracious apology on his Reddit account:

I know that this post ISN’T a funny post but I felt the need to apologize to the Sikhs, Balpreet, and anyone else I offended when I posted that picture. Put simply it was stupid. Making fun of people is funny to some but incredibly degrading to the people you’re making fun of. It was an incredibly rude, judgmental, and ignorant thing to post.

The Imitation of Christ (Thomas à Kempis)When we imitate someone else’s meanness by responding with our own meanness, it only hardens both our hearts and makes us all mean. Fortunately for us, Balpreet is focusing her “life on creating change and progress for this world.” That change and progress is the courage to end the cycle of scapegoating. We learn from her that when we respond to scapegoating with the spirit of grace and forgiveness, believing in our own sacredness and the sacredness of the other, then our hearts can soften and we have the chance for a better imitation – the imitation of grace.

– by Adam Ericksen

I explored this dynamic of “the imitation of grace” also, in an earlier post. Click here for “Turn the other cheek.”

Things I say… allegedly…

The secret to creativity (Albert Einstein)

Well, Einstein isn’t the only one with quotes :). Through several years of teaching, I’ve developed some expressions myself. Of course, it’s only my attempt to transmit the ideas of others. Anyway, hope to make you think. Enjoy!

about Jesus and Christianity

Jesus is often called a leader whose words and deeds are too otherworldly to be imitated. Indeed, our world produces one illusion after the other, and Jesus is too much of a realist to aspire to be a king of this world.

There are some whose ultimate goal it is to be loved, and they are willing to suffer in order to get to their paradise of happiness. There are others whose ultimate goal it is to love, and they are willing to bear suffering as a possible consequence of their refusal to sacrifice others. The last ones can be considered followers of Christ. The first ones can be considered masochists.

It’s better and healthier – maybe more ‘Christian’ even – to discard Christianity because of a lack of understanding than to accept an untruthful, unhealthy version of it.

quote on Jesus (Albert Einstein)

about truth and lies

Although you might have the opposite impression, as long as you have to take medication, the disease you’re suffering from is not cured. Any doctor who makes you think you are cured by taking drugs is selling pharmaceutical lies. In the case of chronic, still incurable diseases, scientific progress is needed to prevent the pharmaceutical industry of becoming an end in itself. The economics of the pharmaceutical industry, and the medications it produces, should serve the ultimate goal of medicine: cure people, which means making them independent of medications.

One aspect of truth is like a real gift. It’s not immediately necessary are necessarily useful, but it opens unexpected possibilities. The truth has the potential to set you free because you don’t need it.

Although some consider it to be a sign of freedom to be able to approach reality from the perspective of their supposedly very own needs, desires and interests, this is actually a sign of enslavement; for the things you need or learned to need are things you are dependent upon (otherwise you wouldn’t need them).

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift (Albert Einstein)

One aspect of truth is like love. It can hurt, for it does not flee when aspects of reality strike that you would rather do away with.

Truth does not have to be useful. It has to be true.

Some people are primarily interested in what they need. Others are primarily interested in gaining knowledge and finding truth.

There are only two ways to live (Albert Einstein)

about education

Education begins where one’s primary interests and certainties end. It’s a call to adventure.

It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education (Albert Einstein)

Some people think they know what’s true by pointing out what’s false. It’s the illusion of a man who dares not criticize and educate himself, afraid he’ll find out that he’s not a god.

The only sure way to avoid making mistakes... (Albert Einstein)

about scientism

Some give the impression that modern science will eventually answer all questions, thereby characterizing as irrelevant those questions science cannot answer. Well, that’s easy. If I can marginalize all questions that I cannot answer (by calling them “irrelevant”), I’ll be able to solve “all” questions immediately.

The important thing is not to stop questioning (Albert Einstein)

Strict scientism makes perfect sense, right? In the end, it considers “Butterflies evolve from caterpillars” a meaningful statement, while it considers “Butterflies are beautiful” meaningless. Should make perfect sense, but somewhere down the road, something apparently went wrong, nonetheless…

about desire and needs

If you desire to be everywhere, you end up being nowhere.

“I don’t need God!”, the atheist said, “I’m perfectly happy without Him!” – “I don’t need a house with electricity!”, the caveman cried, “I’m perfectly happy in my cave!”

[=> Okay, this one’s quite lame :); and of course, to love someone doesn’t mean that a desire for happiness drives you – love is ultimately concerned with the well-being of others, and we’re all unhappy if our beloved others are harmed; still, most of us won’t suppress love because of the possible sadness it provokes – meaning our desire to feel good and happy is less important than our desire for the well-being of the beloved others…].

about love (and utilitarianism)

If you love others, you’ll get hurt when you lose them, and feel sad when they suffer. Still, you will not stop loving them. Not because you enjoy sadness or suffering, but because you are willing to accept that your own happiness can only be a consequence of the happiness of others, and never an end in itself (contrary to utilitarianism).

I never said half the crap people said I did (Albert Einstein)

Turn the other cheek

Once there was this girl, having the time of her life in a happy relationship. Until her boyfriend cheated on her. After that, she couldn’t go on with him. So they broke up.

A year later, she met this other guy. Love at first sight. They started dating. A few months down the road of this new romantic affair, a little fear started creeping into her mind: “What if I’ll be cheated on, again?” The fear grew bigger, as did her desire to safeguard her relationship. So she started controlling her new boyfriend, pressing him to inform her about his whereabouts. He didn’t do anything wrong, but he nevertheless had to suffer from her anxieties. Until he couldn’t stand it any longer, and her worst fear came true: he broke up with her. Tragic. Ironic. All she had done to avoid the destruction of the relationship brought about the relationship’s downfall. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it… (Matthew 16:25a).

What happened? Well, the girl was hurt, and she had been sad and angry because of it. Instead of letting go of her sadness and frustration, she started focusing on these emotions again while being in a new relationship. And she started hurting a guy who hadn’t done anything to cause her pain, insinuating he was not trustworthy and accusing him of being a liar and a cheater. In other words, she imitated the blows inflicted on her persona by inflicting similar blows on someone else. It was her way of taking revenge. Her new boyfriend turned out to be her scapegoat: someone who had to answer for her anger, although he was innocent. There is indeed, as René Girard and so many other Christian thinkers rightly point out, a nearly inextricable connection between the mimetic principle of vengeance and the scapegoating impulse.

In order to break the vicious cycle of hurt inflicting hurt – the cycle of original sin -, Christ invites us to take part in an act of creation. This is a creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing), meaning that our actions are no longer defined by the lesser and greater evil we endured in the past. To return to the situation of the girl: Christ invites her to “turn the other cheek” as she begins a new relationship. To turn the other cheek indeed means that you refuse to let your relationships and yourself be defined by the hurtful mechanisms that eventually destroy relationships. Christ invites the girl to trust being vulnerable again. He invites her to keep faith over fear – for “fear leads to anger, to hate, to suffering” as some famous wise man summarized Christ’s advice…

Forgiveness is at the heart of creation, destabilizing the balance of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” – for, as some other wise man allegedly said: “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”. Coming from outside the cycle of bad deeds or “bad karma“, the grace of forgiveness opens up the possibility of a new kind of imitation or mimesis. Instead of imitating each other in trying to assert ourselves over against one another – as theologian James Alison would say –, “turning the other cheek” is an invitation to begin an imitation of recognizing and accepting each other’s vulnerability. Recognizing that “no one is without sin”, in order to end “casting the first stone”. It’s an invitation to shy away from self-assertion over against one another – which would be called a movement of kenosis (“self-emptying”) in theological terms. The imitatio Christi would thus lead to the recovery of human beings, for “being human” means “being in relationships”, and the act of grace Christ invites us to take part in is precisely aimed at restoring those relationships. Therefore: Whoever loses his life for me will find it… (Matthew 16:25b).

So Matthew 5:38-39 is not an invitation to be masochistic. It’s quite the opposite. It’s a radical refusal to surrender to the evil that we experience from time to time. It’s an invitation to obey the creative call of Love (click here to read more) – which is, paradoxically, truly liberating:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…”