Every now and again in an acceptance speech, magic happens and an actor connects the dots between their on screen role and real life issues. Viola Davis, from The Help, did this in her award speech last year. She said,
I just want to say that the stain of racism and sexism is not just for people of color or women. It’s all of our burden. All of us. And I don’t care how ordinary you may feel. All of us can inspire change. Every single one of us. Thank you.
That’s an award speech worth making. I loved The Help and the issues it raised, universal issues of empowerment. In one scene, there is a flashback when Skeeter remembers an experience with her black nanny, Constantine.
Skeeter: All the boys say I’m ugly. Momma was third runner up in the Miss South Carolina pageant.
Constantine: I wish you would quit feeling sorry for yourself. Now, that’s ugly. Ugly is something that grows up inside you. It’s mean and hurtful, like them boys. Now you’re not one of them, is you?
Skeeter shakes her head.
Constantine: Well, I didn’t think so, honey.
Constantine grabs Skeeter’s palm, pressing it with her thumb.
Every day…. Every day you’re not dead in the ground, when you wake up in the morning, you gonna have to make some decisions. Got to ask yourself, am I gone believe all them bad things them fools say about me today? You hear me? Am I going to believe all of them bad things them fools say about me today? All right.
Skeeter (in a voiceover as an adult): All my life I’d been told what to believe about politics, coloreds, being a girl. But with Constantine’s thumb pressed in my hand, I realized I actually had a choice in what I could believe.
Now, whenever I start to feel disempowered, I press my thumb into my palm and remind myself that I have a choice in what I believe; about myself, about life, about circumstances. The way other people act doesn’t need to control your life. You have the power of choice in how you respond. You can choose not to buy into other peoples’ hatred and insecurity.
We ALL have doubters, detractors and doomsdayers, and if we bought into their energy, we would end up basket cases. There is a saying, “Your enemies feed on your energy, so starve the bastards.” Your detractors feed on your energy, so don’t give them anything to feed on.
This is part of a series on not taking things personally. My interest in writing on this topic is to encourage ALL people to feel things deeply and personally but not TAKE things personally. It’s an important distinction. Some things definitely feel personal. Some things are also intended personally. Some people work very hard to make it personal for us. But it’s always a choice to TAKE it personally.
I have had many opportunities in my life to learn this truth. One situation stands out. An ultra conservative man wanted a meeting with me. We had never met before. I met him in the foyer of my office and stretched out my hand to shake his. He put his hand behind his back. I thought to myself, “Here we go! This is going to be interesting.” It turned out he thought he was coming to meet someone else. We chatted for a while and, while we never saw eye to eye on our beliefs, we did share a laugh or two. Yes, before he left, he shook my hand. The point here is that it’s impossible to take that situation personally. It was literally not about me. It WAS personal, and he wanted it to be personal. But it had nothing to do with me.
It rarely does. Each person brings their issues, expectations, assumptions and insecurities. Some do a better job of owning their own stuff than others. Some have a strong need to try and force others to buy into their drama. Don’t do it. Live your own life with integrity and let others deal with their stuff. (click here for 12 symptoms of living with power) Choose NOT to take it personally.
When it comes to larger scale, and more endemic issues, like racism or poverty or reproductive rights, hold your convictions. Fight for your rights and the rights of others. Speak up and get passionately active. Even so, you still don’t need to TAKE it personally, and your action will be more effective if it’s not loaded with the same energy you’re trying to fight. The point is to feel deeply passionate and become fully active, without becoming a victim.
One of the most inspiring examples of this was the black preacher and civil rights activist Wade Watts who died in 1998. He was persecuted by a man named Johnny Lee Clary who was the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan’s White Knights. After spending his twenties terrorizing black people in his home town in Oklahoma, Clary renounced his racist past and become an activist for tolerance and respect. He described an experience he had with Wade Watts. When they first met, Clary accidentally shook the hand of Wade Watts and immediately looked at his hand in disbelief. Watts said, “It don’t rub off.” Clary got embarrassed and began calling Watts all the derogatory names he could think of. Watts said to him,
God bless you, Johnny. You can’t do enough to make me hate you. I’m gonna love you and I’m gonna pray for you, whether you like it or not.
Later, Clary called Watts at his home to tell him that his church was being burnt to the ground by Klansmen. Watts prayed out loud through the phone, “Dear Lord, please forgive Johnny for being stupid. He’s a good boy.”
Not only did Watts NOT take any of this personally, but he seemed to be a big part in creating change in Clary. How did he do it? Extravagant compassion. Maybe Wade knew that Johnny had a dysfunctional family life and, at age 10, watched the father who had taught him prejudice and hatred, kill himself. Maybe he knew that Johnny was moved from family member to family member and had no stable adult influence. Maybe he knew that Johnny ended up in the gang scene in East LA and joined the Ku Klux Klan by the time he was 14.
When you think of the hateful things he did and said as an adult; it’s easy to take Clary’s actions personally. When you think of a ten year old boy trying to come to terms with his own confusion; it’s hard not to have compassion for him, and therefore hard to take it personally. Wade Watts saw a bigger picture. Without for a second excusing what he did in the name of racial hatred, Johnny Lee Clary is a reminder that people live what they learn and if you surprise them by not buying into their drama, they DO change.
How do people like Wade Watts manage to find compassion and calm in the face of hatred? Inner mastery. This comes from radical self acceptance that doesn’t need to be validated from the outside and can’t be shattered from the outside. Wade had this in spades.
As Abeliene (Viola Davis), from The Help, often told the little white girl in her care, “You is smart. You is kind. You is important.” If we all had this inner self respect, we might be more respectful of others and take things far less personally. Then imagine the change that would come over the world.