Defining a meaningful course for our lives is the challenge of a lifetime. We learn early on some guiding principles and hopefully use those going forward. The lessons from infancy and then childhood and into adulthood under the watchful eye of our parents, siblings, family caregivers, teachers, coaches, pastoral support, and even peers can be invaluable for short-term and long-term growth and serve to enhance our ability to contribute to our social groups as a valuable citizen. Yet there will be missteps along the way. We might be presented with difficult obstacles that require significant assistance from multiple sources. We might make significant mistakes that require correction (apologies, forgiveness) and a rededication to improve our lives, the lives of others and the life of our communities.
More often than not, we know the things we should be doing. However, just knowing what the right thing is to do is very different than doing right. I can recall many times when knowing something still did not translate into positive actions on my part. When that happens, I have found that looking at opposites can be helpful. We know that we should love our neighbor, but we don’t always do it. We know that we should take a more active role in addressing discrimination in our society, but we don’t always do it. We know that poverty is a real toxin in our society, but we don’t seek enough solutions to combat the problems.
Let’s look at some opposites to see my point.
- The opposite of love—Bishop Michael Curry (Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church) discusses this topic in his book – LOVE IS THE WAY: HOLDING ON TO HOPE IN TROUBLING TIMES. “If love looks outward, to the good of the other, then its opposite isn’t hate. Its opposite is selfishness! It’s a life completely centered on the self…that nothing good ever comes out of selfishness and greed.” So, if I find myself not exhibiting love for others, then I have to look at what the opposite is. Am I being selfish? How can I change my behavior to be more caring and empathetic? Introspection and empathy should now be my tools for change.
- The opposite of racism—this topic is a real hot button in our society right now. While structural racism is real (structural racism refers to the social structures that continue the disadvantages for some and the advantages for others and perpetuate the system that allows it; these social structures can include neighborhoods, educational sites, pockets of poverty and legal means), the work of righting these wrongs is really tough. I recently hear a rather flippant remark about a minor problem – “Oh…everything is racist.” To me that remark means that the speaker refuses to acknowledge that much work has yet to be done or really doesn’t want to consider the seriousness of the problem. So, if I find myself in these situations in the future, I need to be the opposite of racist. I need to be anti-racist. We have to be anti-racist—that is, we have to be “one who is supporting an anti-racist policy through their actions and expressing anti-racist ideas.” It is insufficient to say that “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” or “some of my best friends are people of color.” We have to be on the front lines opposing racism at every turn.
- The opposite of poverty—Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, AL has worked tirelessly on behalf of people wrongly accused of crimes yet incarcerated for inhumane periods of times under equally inhumane conditions. The mass incarceration of our less fortunate countrymen raises serious questions about our ability to fairly apply the standards of justice in our country. I remember his statement—the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice—as a call to action. So, I need to be seeking justice for those struggling with poverty and that involves so many spheres beyond just increased wealth. Voting rights and fair banking practices are just two easily identified additional ones.
So, as I look to continue to try and lead a meaningful and impactful life, I can look to what I should be doing for guidance, but I can also look for the toxic effects of the opposite when I do not do those things. Opposites can provide great insight to improve our lives and the lives of others.