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Like most, I lead a multifaceted life. I work a day job, I write, I model, I work with youth in my community, and I simply exist as a friend and family member.

In the same way that sometimes it feels like life is moving along beautifully in all of my different contexts, it can also feel like trouble is simultaneously arising. Lately I have noticed a very specific pattern co-occurring in the many spaces of my life: being confronted with hurtful, rude, or seemingly petty tones of communication.

As I’ve pondered potential reasons for this, I acknowledge that it’s obviously not something unique to my own experience. The world is full of reasons for people to grumpily walk around and relate poorly to others. At some point, we all project discontented attitudes towards one another. We have a lot to deal with at the macro level and also some us have a lot going on within our own personal lives; and most of us only know a limited number of ways to deal with the stress so prominent at this moment in human history.

I also realize that social constructs—race and gender—inevitably impact how commonly I am talked down to. As a young black woman in America, it is unfortunately not shocking that many people are emboldened by these aspects of my identity to critique me, to assume untrue things about me, or to treat me harshly. Sexism and racism run throughout the history and fabric of our culture—which means certain of us meet with condescending tones more often in our daily lives.

While it can be easy for me to ruminate on the many possible reasons why I keep being talked down to, a recent conversation with someone whose perspective I value reminded me that it is much more productive to configure a plan for how I might be able to respond in the future. In fact, given the unfortunate rate at which I have recently come up against this form of disrespect, it actually feels necessary to decide in advance how I want to react internally, and if necessary, externally.

After asking a few people I trust for advice on the matter, I collected many different approaches. One recommended pushing back—saying I had to defend myself, or otherwise people would continue to walk all over me. Others advised me to rise above the negativity—rather than wasting more energy on any of these interactions, they suggested it might be better to brush things off and keep going.

The Baha’i teachings suggest that whichever way I choose to respond, it should be chosen carefully:

Every word is endowed with a spirit, therefore the speaker or expounder should carefully deliver his words at the appropriate time and place, for the impression which each word maketh is clearly evident and perceptible. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 11.

This passage not only affirms that my feelings are natural, considering the potency each person’s language has, but also encourages me to be reflective and intentional about the way I respond to those around me.

I have an innate natural desire to push for justice. Sometimes this desire mistakenly makes me feel like I have to go out of my comfort zone and meet harshness with harshness in order to adequately address disrespect or dismissal. Though it is likely true that standing up for myself is crucial, it is possible that I can maintain tact, kindness and humility even when I perceive someone to be cocky or unforgiving towards me. The Baha’i teachings say:

Consort with all men … in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship. If ye be aware of a certain truth, if ye possess a jewel, of which others are deprived, share it with them in a language of utmost kindliness and goodwill. If it be accepted, if it fulfill its purpose, your object is attained. If anyone should refuse it, leave him unto himself, and beseech God to guide him. Beware lest ye deal unkindly with him. A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning, it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and understanding … – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 289

To me, this quote implies that sharing my truth, even if it might create discomfort, does not seem to contradict the meaning of kindliness—instead, it is acceptable to point out an injustice or to stand up for myself. After speaking up, I can step back and allow others to respond in whatever way they will. I do not need to curate my language to be one that forces those around me to change, but I can offer them observations that might trigger reflection and personal initiative to change. While in some ways to be kindly and detached from the responses of others in the face of being talked down to might be challenging, it also allows me to let go of a misperceived responsibility to force others to respect me.

This final passage from the Baha’i writings felt particularly freeing:

Beware lest ye harm any soul, or make any heart to sorrow; lest ye wound any man with your words, be he known to you or a stranger, be he friend or foe. Pray ye for all; ask ye that all be blessed, all be forgiven. Beware, beware, lest any of you seek vengeance, even against one who is thirsting for your blood. Beware, beware, lest ye offend the feelings of another, even though he be an evil-doer, and he wish you ill. Look ye not upon the creatures, turn ye to their Creator. See ye not the never-yielding people, see but the Lord of Hosts. Gaze ye not down upon the dust, gaze upward at the shining sun, which hath caused every patch of darksome earth to glow with light. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 73.

For me this means that I can be unapologetically kind to people around me no matter how aggressively they may treat me. In fact, it feels healthy and okay to look at the good in a person despite their faults, to repay hostility with warmth. We can create healthy boundaries necessary to lead fruitful lives, and enforce them with humility rather than vengeance. We sometimes feel forced to go into a defensive mode, but it is possible that the more protective and productive response involves showing unconditional sweetness and love towards others, and trying to find the good—and the God—within them.

7 Comments

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  • Gerald Williams
    Mar 30, 2019
    I have no doubt that Makeena is familiar (at least) with "I'm OK, You're OK" by Thomas Harris. If so, I would like to ask her if she sees any significant deficiency in the practical aspects of dealing with condenscension in terms of that approach. (Not to compare Harris's ideas and practices with the Baha'i approach, but as a means of avoiding conflict and increasing mutual respect).
  • Louise Profeit-LeBlanc
    Mar 29, 2019
    Thank you Makeena. You are such a wise young woman and in reading your commentary today, it made me day to think of the many Bahai youth of the world are making these big changes by knowing themselves through the writings. Wishing you well always.
  • Nava Sarracino
    Mar 29, 2019
    Thanks I am going to forward this to a few friends who I feel have been dealing with the same thing and I see alot of anger within the heart. In fact just tonight we were talking about this in our interfaith devotional gathering. Perfect timing
  • Mahin Sahih
    Mar 29, 2019
    Beautiful Makeena. Thank you.
  • Patricia Leeb
    Mar 28, 2019
    Thank you for the inspiration, and reminding me of who to look upon when dealing with others -- you've reminded me that everyone is a repository of "gems", and to regard them as such.
  • Paul Mantle
    Mar 27, 2019
    Thank you Makeena for another superb article! Here is a compilation I posted online ten years ago on the the same subject. Its title is taken from one of the wonderful Baha'i quotes you referenced: 'Every Word is Endowed with a Spirit.' It can be found at: http://bahaimosaic.blogspot.com/2009_06_06_archive.html
    • Paul Desailly
      Mar 29, 2019
      The advice proffered by Makeena Rivers and Paul Mantle is on the mark. Generally speaking, Intellectuals who wield influence simply turn away pharisaically and disregard the fundamental Baha'i principle of consultation on hearing advice they dislike. Labelling critics as condescending communicators is invalid unless proof is proffered case by case. It entails yet more consulting than the criticized will submit to as a rule. For a Baha'i to disdain criticism from non-Baha'is, to shun their coreligionists or to ignore Abdul Baha's instructions, for example re the auxlang principle, is to breach the Covenant. Baha'u'llah addresses failures of this ilk: "In ...all things it is necessary to consult. This matter should be forcibly stressed by thee."
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