Recently, I’ve been listening to some fascinating people explain what prompted them to shift from violence to love, from isolation to connection, and from blame to accountability. Although these stories are profoundly differentiated, they also carry a common thread regarding the process of self-realization.
One fascinating story unfolds as someone describes how after years of being in the Klu Klux Klan, it was finally inside a rehab center when his paradigm began to shift. He explained how the rehab community was made up of people from all sorts of perspectives, backgrounds, and life paths. As he engaged with the community, he noticed how even with his public reputation as a white supremacist, people in the group still treated him with care and compassion. His emotional walls began to break down. He participated in vulnerable dialogues, shed tears, and broke into laughter with the diverse group.
He articulated, “It doesn’t matter if its race, sexual preferences, or religions, it doesn’t matter what it is, they were different from me. And I just made a connection with them and started talking to them and learning. Getting to know them was definitely the key to the whole entire thing.”
At the same time, he was feeling a newfound joy with humanity, he was also facing shame about whom he had become. He had to reckon with his choices of violent and bigoted behaviors. He started to see connections between his abusive childhood, the way he felt about himself, and why he chose to put others down. This opening began a process of shedding his identity as a white supremacist and propelling a journey of learning to connect with the world with raw honesty and a new sense of self-worth.
What led him into a cult that adopted racist perspectives was not inherently about race, it was about unresolved issues inside himself. What led him out of these views was not about race either, rather it was about learning to love, feel, and connect. And ultimately a realization that his sense of worth couldn’t come from anywhere other than sourced from inside his own being.
In another dialogue, someone explained how they let go of radicalized Jihadist perspectives and violent tendencies. He had spent years clinging to an identity rooted in a specific ideology, preaching absolutist mantras, and seeking to manipulate others into adopting the same views. Although a few seeds of change had been previously planted, it wasn’t until he was in prison and engaged with someone who understood him that his heart began to speak to him in new ways.
It was a series of conversations with a person who inspired him to begin to trust humanity. She offered him something rare: she didn’t judge him. She didn’t seek to condemn him for his choices as a radicalized Jihadist, yet she still brought a brilliant tough love in holding him accountable for the effects of his behaviors. Her balance of compassion and sternness presented a way of being he’d never experienced. One that moved him to see life differently.
As he reflected upon the physical abuse he endured as a child and a deeply rooted self-sacrificial narrative driving his behaviors, he learned to let go of the extremist mentalities and opened his mind and heart to the possibility of a life free from hatred and blame. He found that celebrating the connection he felt to being Muslim didn’t need to be about violence or radicalization. He found shedding his “us versus them” mentality brought him internal peace, which reflected in his external release from violent ways.
What led him into adopting a radicalized Jihadist perspective was not inherently about religion, it was about unresolved issues inside himself. And what led him to shift out was not about religion, rather about learning to see the unresolved source of his pain and take accountability for how this affected his motivations and choices. And similarly, he also underwent a realization process that illuminated how he was as worthy of love as any human being on the whole planet.
When we hear people’s stories, we can more easily understand how they made certain choices. Previously held labels of who are oppressors and who are victims begin to dissolve. The dissolution results in a complexity beyond a right and wrong way of thinking. This complexity may be disorienting at first, yet it’s in this gray area where we can see people as humans rather than judge them for their choices as right or wrong. It doesn’t mean we still can’t hold people accountable for the effects of their actions, yet we don’t need to judge them. Perhaps when we show up with the intent to listen, learn, and understand, we contribute to the resolution of a conflict rather than maintaining the tension through our own fears, judgments, discomforts, and need to blame others. And we just might learn that our own need to blame those who have engaged in methods to which we disagree can quickly illuminate our own hypocrisy.