Reparative Gestures

Sometimes an intention to do better, or even just see better, can help with healing.

Earlier this month, I had the great thrill of hearing Dr. Cornel West speak in person at the Flynn Theater in Burlington, Vermont, where I live. With no notes in his hands, he walked onstage to rousing applause and asked us all: “What kind of human being are you choosing to be?”

Brother West’s reminder about “the danger of indifference” gave the human I’m choosing to be room to breathe.

Brother West spoke about democracy, racism, “the danger of indifference,” morality, justice, and love. And the human being that I believe I’m choosing to be was elevated, affirmed, and given room to breathe. In this moment where collapse and disintegration are front and center in our conversations about our life on this planet, his words reminded me that hope still springs eternal. They remind me that while I can’t control everything, I can still choose. And I know that I want to be compassionate, empathetic, generous, vulnerable, open, and coming correct to any relationship I have, be it with another human or another species. I walked out of the theater feeling – dare I say – empowered and even a bit cocky. “Yeah – I’ve got this.

Brother West’s reminder about “the danger of indifference” gave the human I’m choosing to be room to breathe. Photo by Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons.

A few days later, the universe decided to test me. I received an email from a woman who identified herself as Sarah the Great who spoke about being in a National Park Service center where my book, Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, was on sale, and she proceeded to place another set of “non-racist” books in front of my book so that, as she put it, “no one else would see your racist book.” In her short email, she accused me of being racist three times. (She called my book racist twice.) She told me that the world needs more harmony and that I needed to stop being racist. “White people are great,” she added before signing off.

I need to be honest here. My response was not one of empathy, compassion, or generosity. Her words were a punch to the gut. I felt caught between wanting to lash out at her or simply break down and cry. How do we remain true to the human being we want to be in a moment where hurt, trauma, and pain are everywhere? When we allow fear and mistrust to drive the car? Where our own pain shapeshifts into assumptions about a person and/or a set of ideas that limit our ability to consider a different way forward, together?

Soon after, I found myself at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where I had been invited for a short residency and to give the annual Otis Lecture that “is intended to explore the spiritual and moral dimensions of humankind’s relationship with the environment.” I thought about what I wanted to share (reparations, redemption, remaking our world) and began the work of fleshing out ideas and stories that the audience might lean into. But I also wanted to know more about the lecture’s namesake, so I did a little digging and discovered that this lecture was inaugurated in 1996 by the family of Philip J. Otis, who had died on Mt. Rainier while trying to save a hiker. In what is arguably the ultimate reparative gesture, his family takes a moment of pain that I can only imagine and turns it into something hopeful.

“Accountability and redemption are not an either/or proposition, but a both/and necessity.” — Carolyn Finney. Photo by Hilary Swift.

A reparative gesture is not about righting some wrong; it’s about an intention to do better, an intention to see better. It’s about your healing and mine and the earth on which we depend. It is about honoring our humanity in all of its mystery and incomprehensibility. It’s about remaining curious and compassionate, empathetic, and present while looking to the future. The gesture is the choice.

It’s understanding that possibility and hope are revealed in the repetition, the practice, the transformation of tragedy, trauma, and pain. That accountability and redemption are not an either/or proposition, but a both/and necessity. We are always playing the long game, not the end game. During his talk, Cornel West quoted from W.H. Auden’s As I Walk Out One Evening:

O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start
You shall love your crooked neighbor
With your crooked heart.

I don’t believe it’s about waiting till we’ve figured it all out or even come to some place of grace. I’m still working on it with Sarah the Great. But I’m going to bring my crooked heart to bear. Come as you are, love as you are. Because we need it. Earth needs it.

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