Rumor has it that I am a passionate person. From what I hear, I have always been this way. My grandmother would repeatedly tell me of the time I stood before her as a red-cheeked, three year old, furious and in tears, because someone parked in the parking spot that should have only been hers (Come on, people, those signs are there for a reason!!).
And I LOVE working with passionate individuals. I love the fire, the alarm, the determination to see things change, to be better in this world. Now, I live with two passion-filled, justice seeking individuals. Sometimes, though, it is hard to live in this world when you are filled with passion, when you “see” things, when injustice is more than something to acknowledge in conversation…but rather something that needs to be confronted head-on until change occurs. I am left with this question. It is a question that I have had numerous passion-filled people ask me and I now see the same question starting to emerge in my own children’s hearts.
“How can an individual, especially an individual within an organization, bring up valid concerns in a way that does not foster defensiveness or dismissal? The “organization” could be a family, a church, a workplace, a classroom, a school, etc. “
I love the book of Nehemiah. In the book, there are a large group of Jews who are working hard to rebuild the wall around their city. Each group has been assigned a portion of the wall. So, for example, the “Hamiltons” were given a section by the North Gate, the “Smiths” have a portion of the East side and so on.
Each group had to do a really great job on their portion of the wall to make sure that the city was secure. They couldn’t be wandering around critically assessing everyone else’s portion of the wall. They just had to build the wall as best they could for the sake of the entire community. The security and safety of the people depended on the strength of this wall.
So what happens, if one day, a young builder is walking back with a pail of water for her family’s section of wall, and she sees another group mixing the mud wrong? They’re not using the right amount of water to clay and the mortar is going to be really weak. She is young, but she has an eye for this thing. However, this is a group of adults and she has been taught to remain quiet and supportive, so she takes her water back to her group.
This plagues her all day. She doesn’t feel critical of the other group. She has no ill feelings toward them. But she thinks about the weakness of the wall. This troubles her. This is bigger than her, or even them. So she brings it up to an elder in her group. The elder says she must have seen things incorrectly. And even more so, who is she to criticize? She is young, they are more experienced. Surely she must be wrong.
She tries to accept this answer. But her struggle inside grows as she thinks about her people and their safety. So she speaks to another elder. This elder offers to approach the group with her. She is scared, but agrees. They approach the group and the elder greets the others warmly. He helps the young girl express her concern. The group replies by stating that they have always mixed the clay this way. “Look at our wall!”, they say. “It looks strong, right!?” they insist. The elder responds to their defense by agreeing that everything appears well. Plus, at this point, it would take too much time to try and rebuild everything, anyway.
The girl and elder walk away. The elder commends the girl for her bravery in speaking up and for her heart of concern. They part ways. The girl leaves discouraged. It was never about her in the first place. It was only ever about a part of the wall that was weak. It was only ever about the fact that her people that she loves might now be vulnerable to many types of danger.
What should the girl have done differently? Fight harder? Talk louder? What does an individual do when he or she sees something that sincerely concerns them, but they are not in a position of influence? And how does one in influence stay open to these concerns? Especially when those in roles of leadership are usually already pressed for time and/or overwhelmed by input?
I don’t know the answers. But I need to find them. I need to find them so I am not this elder someday: commending a young girl for her bravery while leaving her discouraged over how little her voice actually mattered.