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Ways of Seeing: Speak love to power

The Quakers have a venerable saying, “Speak Truth to Power.” I deeply appreciate the sentiment behind it, which is that we need to step forward and say something to those in power when we recognize that things are wrong: slavery, wars, discrimination, disrespect.
Over the years this principle has helped people come together to demand changes, such as abolition or giving equal rights to women, and I am grateful to be one small player in that tradition. But it has always made me uncomfortable since I’m seldom sure what absolute truth is and certainly my take is only one understanding among many.
In these troubling times, so reminiscent of the period of the Vietnam War and the early Civil Rights movement, it is hard to know how to respond; hard to know what truth is (do we really live in a bubble here in Vermont?); and hard not to be dispirited.
I read the 2016 report on Hate Groups, published by the Southern Poverty Law Center and wonder if we are living in parallel universes. Can people really be this frightened, this angry, this unfeeling that they strike out with such hate and encourage others to do the same?
The answer clearly is yes. So beyond saying that what they are doing is wrong, which I find so easy to do, how can I be engaged in changing the environment and circumstances that have led them to that point?
I suppose the answers are simple: join or support groups that work for racial, social and economic justice; learn about the underpinnings of injustice and the evolution of hate and violence; band together with others to try, in the words of William Penn to “See What Love Can Do.”
But when it comes down to making the changes I need to in my own life, it is more difficult. Am I still harboring grudges and resentments within my own family and circle of friends and colleagues? Am I benefitting inequitably from the labor of others? Do I fail to understand the privilege of being a middle class, white woman, in a relatively safe and loving community? Are there more ways I could use that position of privilege to protect and promote the rights of others?
Italian café culture has an interesting feature: A caffé sospeso is a cup of coffee paid for in advance as an anonymous act of kindness. The tradition began in the working-class cafes of Naples where someone who had experienced good luck would order a sospeso (suspended coffee), paying the price of two coffees but receiving and consuming only one. A person enquiring later whether there was a sospeso available would then be served a coffee for free. This has captured my imagination ever since learning of it in a wonderful, free, online course from the Open University.
Could there be a similar, consistent, act of love paid forward in our culture that might help to change this growing climate of incivility? I haven’t figured it out yet, but I trust that together we will indeed learn to speak love to power and to change the conditions that are creating these current, troubling times.
Cheryl Mitchell is president of Treleven, a retreat and learning program located on her family’s sheep farm in Addison County. She does freelance consulting on issues related to children, families, social policy and farm to community work.

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