The power of seeing ourselves as others see us

08/12/2020

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us!"

 

These immortal words by the beloved 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns take on a new meaning in the time of Zoom. Burns, the son of a tenant farmer, died when he was only 37 years old and is considered the national poet of Scotland. Among his most famous works is the immortal “Auld Lang Syne,” the song we sing at New Year’s. It reminds not to forget “auld acquaintance” and “take a cup of kindness, yet.” He tells us to remember our past and our friends and to think today with kindness.  

Today, we are at a tipping point. We’ve had others before, for sure. But somehow, this one feels different and I hope I am right that it feels stronger. If we have courage and fortitude, it may last longer than previous attempts to achieve permanent social justice. Unlike the curve of Covid-19, which we hope will soon begin a downward trajectory, I hope the trajectory of the Black Lives Matter movement will continue its ascendency to November, January 2021 and beyond so we can sustain a shift in the social and economic policies that have led to the moral crisis we are experiencing. Let’s for Auld Lang Syne’s sake promote laws, elected officials and judges who will take us back toward the vision of our founding parents who framed a Constitution, a Constitution that intended to provide liberty and justice for all. Of course, “all” at that time needed some improvements.

Why am I hopeful? Because today’s civil rights movement is intersectional. It’s not just a movement of African Americans, it is a movement of people of all races, sexes, ages, nationalities, genders—all of the protected classes and those of us who are not counted as needing protection or reparations. It’s taking place in cities all over the country and in nations and cities in other parts of the world. It is different because, unlike previous movements, this revolution is being televised. It isn’t just Black people in this country who are justifiably screaming, it is more universal. It is people of good will all over.

Bob Marley sang in the ’60s, “Don’t worry about a thing, every little thing is gonna’ be alright.”  As much as I love him and reggae, he was way too optimistic. Like many of us who lived through the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, Stonewall, and the Delano grape strike in the second half of the 20th century, we came to believe that permanent, sustainable progress had been made. We became complacent; we stopped paying attention. Not unlike Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, we fell asleep. And we are finally getting awakened, en masse. The question is how do we stay woke?  

Social media has given us new tools. Cell phone cameras are recording police misconduct but also peaceful demonstrations. The president is a T.V. personality and Twitter addict, but the rest of us have SnapChat, Instagram, YouTube, Reddit, Facebook and, now, Zoom. We have the power to connect and form coalitions, to exchange comment and to argue. People who have been hesitant to talk politics have found online forums a more acceptable and perhaps less threatening way to express themselves. White people are discovering, perhaps for the first time, the privilege they have taken for granted. 

We are all learning more about structural racism in our own towns that prevented people of color from owning homes or joining local swim clubs. We have the documents, property deeds and personal stories, and truthful narratives about our historical legacy, about who we were and who we are. Now that the truth is out, it’s up to us to forge the paths to move forward, toward who we want to become as democracy, toward a more perfect union. If we want to make America great again, let’s listen again to Woody Guthrie sing “This land is your land, this land is my land” and Frank Sinatra sing “What is America to Me?”

One of the most interesting things about tools like Facebook is that we now have the ability to find out who our real friends are, locally and across the great divide. The electronic age has also offered us the opportunity to see our own reflections. We have the power that Robbie Burns hoped for—to see ourselves as others see us. In a Zoom meeting, others see us in our non-work clothes in living rooms or kitchens or decks. We see everyone’s faces close up and at the same time our own facial expressions and body language. As I see my own reflection, I see more fully how I am perceived by others. I have an opportunity to learn to be as accepting and noncritical of myself and all the others in the room. 

An amazing teacher in our school district, Katherine Sanford, had each of her graduating eighth-grade students present a Ted talk as a final project. She asked something of the audience, the parents and grandparents listening via Zoom. Katherine asked us older generations to really listen, to hear what our children are telling us, to what they would like us to hear. I am so grateful we have the teachers we have. May their teachings sustain our valley and beyond.  

 

Suzanne Sadowsky has lived in the San Geronimo Valley since 1975. She is a founding member of Gan HaLev and serves on the board of the San Geronimo Valley Affordable Housing Association.