Regrets or no regrets, that is the reflection: Thoughts on dehumanising behaviour and privilege.
For several if not many years now, when asked if I have any regrets I have responded with a confident and probably little too proud “no”. In this blunt, simple response is a much more complicated story: acknowledgements of decisions made that I would make differently now (but no regrets); of many mistakes made from which I have learned a lot (but no regrets); of sliding door moments where the path of my life would have been totally different if I had stepped through the other door (but no regrets) and more. Most of these reflections relate to the bigger moments and decisions in life - where I went to university, the high control Christian community (aka a cult) I joined while I was at university, meeting my amazing soul mate wife in that high control group, having 3 kids while in that high control group, moving to Peckham to reach out to those that needed saving in that area (yes, sorry about the blatant self righteousness going on in that period of life in the high control group), abandoning the ‘discomfort’ of the Peckham project after 2 years and moving to the much more ‘comfortable’ area of West London, joining the corporate world and having a good go at capitalism and materialism, leaving the high control Christian community, abandoning the Christian faith, leaving the rat race (corporate world) going self employed and starting my own business to launch my invention, moving out of London to the Cotswolds, becoming a life coach, and who knows what else lies ahead... No straight line in that journey friends, but incredible self discovery!
Today I consider myself truly fortunate to be in the happiest place personally, and feel I am the most authentic version of ‘me’ that I have ever been, and yet I also remain excited to discover and learn more. I recognise all the privileges afforded to me, a white heterosexual cisgender middle class man, within the world my life is lived (and these privileges certainly enabled the tortuous life journey described), and I am sincerely trying to be responsible with these privileges and learning daily how to advocate for and ally with those with less privilege than me.
This is where I am recently and profoundly all too aware of important regrets that I have not seen, acknowledged or chosen to ignore in the past.
I am an avid Brene Brown fan and read all bar one of her books and listened to all her podcasts. Recently listening to the audio version of Rising Strong I was profoundly struck by what she had to say about regret. “Regret is a tough but fair teacher. To live without regret is to believe you have nothing to learn, no amends to make and no opportunity to be braver with your life.”
In comparison to the bigger life decisions and sliding door moments, my newly realised and owned regrets have much less to do with the macro life decisions above, however, I am the perpetrator and they are so impactful in how I have related at times to my fellow human beings in a way that diminishes their humanity. And it is not OK and a pretty painful realisation.
I refer to the hundreds if not thousands of times I have behaved in an unkind way to other people: getting irritated and speaking disrespectfully to my wife about unimportant things around the home; being more interested in notifications on my phone than the person I am talking to; not saying thank you to someone serving me food in a restaurant; swearing at other road users who “drive badly” or forget to thank me when I let them through; racially, sexually and by class stereotyping people I don’t know but am observing in a situation; ignoring the homeless person asking for money or the Big Issue seller asking me to buy the magazine, and so many other moments where my privileged life is being inconvenienced and disrupted by someone else. Every one of these incidences are worthy of regret because in that moment I was not kind. I was rude, I was disrespectful, I was racist, sexist, or classist, and therefore behaving in a dehumanising way to another person. Irrespective of how they behave, look, smell or sound, they are people, most of whom I do not know and have no idea what their story is or what issues they are facing in life at that moment. It should not matter who they are, from the most important person in my life to the least. We are all human beings and therefore worthy of respect. As soon as we feel another human being is less worthy of respect that ourselves we dehumanise them and just as crucially we dehumanise ourselves.
You may feel it is justified to be disrespectful at times. I believe there are two forms of respect. There is owed respect and there is earned respect. There is the respect every human being is owed, because they are a human being and in that sense no better or worse than me - on this measure we are equals! However, all too often we focus on earned respect from our position of privilege, and you all know what I mean by that. I am not owed respect because I am white, or because I am a man, or because I am straight. I am owed respect because I am homospaien. So let us never forget the respect owed to all our fellow human beings. We may not share the same sex, skin colour, faith, culture, class etc, but we are all human.
One small step at a time: so the next time I encounter a homeless person asking for money, I may or may not decide to give them money or buy them a cup of coffee. But given I cannot imagine how their life must be - and I’m the first to reach for the G&T after a “tough” day - I will try not to judge them and at the very least I will take a second to look them in the eye, by so doing acknowledging their humanity, and greet them with the respect they are owed, and I will be mindful to own more of my regrets.