Lesson 1: Don’t Get Offended
“Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.” Proverbs 19
“At first they refused to allow me to sit in here with them,” she began. “They made me take my chair outside and sit in the hot sun. I had to listen to everything through the open window.”
“Why would they do that?” someone asked.
The translator discreetly explained Asha is a Dalit (formerly known as an ‘Untouchable’), the most marginalised caste in India. Interacting with her, even being in her shadow, would be considered unclean for the men. Social conventions have been this way for centuries.
“The Hunger Project told me I have a legal right to attend these meetings,” she said with a smile. “I never knew it before. So I took my place at the table. But when I sat down all the men moved outside!”
She went to the other women representatives for advice. They banded together around Asha and reminded the male representatives of her legal right to be there. The men eventually relented and now grudgingly accept her presence at meetings.
I was shocked by this story of injustice. Anger welled up inside me. On the bus ride back to the hotel, I sat in the back alone and turned my face to the window so no one would talk to me.
I thought back to the time our mother told us how Dad had been forced to flee his homeland, on his own on foot, at sixteen years old simply because he was Jewish. I was angry an innocent person (who happened to be my father) could be persecuted simply for being born a Jew.
“Mum, how did those people get away with it?” I asked.
“Because no one stood up to them,” she replied. “That’s why we never stop telling the story.”
At the same time, US television shows were waking me up to the brutal treatment of African-Americans just across the border from my native Canada, simply for being born with dark skins. I could not believe people could be so unfair to their fellow human beings for such a stupid reason.
And now here in India, almost fifty years later, the same thing was happening all over again. I felt devastated.
But as we approached the hotel I had a startling realisation. I did not need to feel sorry for Asha. She is not a victim but rather a genius!
In spite of all the insults and abuse dished out by these men, she refuses to take offense. She wastes no time vilifying her opponents. She does not try to get even though she has every justification to do so. The men have all the power but she doesn’t let them grind her down. Their slights slide off her like beads of sweat off her brow.
And even more remarkably, she has produced amazing results. Since she won the right to sit in council meetings, Asha has championed several initiatives, including getting the police to stop child marriages in the village (illegal but still widely practiced in rural India). She herself had been married off at twelve and was pregnant a couple of years later. She was determined no other young girl would ever have to go through the same experience.
I learned two things from Asha. First, we men exclude women in many ways we don’t even see, and need to stop doing it.
The more personal lesson for me, however, was the realisation how often I take offense and what it costs me.
Taking offense is a national sport in Australia where I now live, so I fit right in. We have specific phrases for it: ‘having a ‘tantie’ or ‘chucking a hissie fit’. National radio presenter Walid Ali even said recently, “Now we demonstrate our virtue by our outrage.”
I wouldn’t recognise myself if I did not get offended! Like when someone cuts me off on the road. Or my wife points out my poor driving habits or shoddy DIY handiwork. Or when my old boss would challenge some of my decisions. Or when clients don’t return phone calls, or even worse, don’t renew a contract. I take offense if people don’t praise what I write in articles or say in my workshops, or even worse, criticise me.
But being offended wastes so much time and energy. It alienates me from those I care for. It stops me making the difference I want to make. I know in the Christian Bible there are over thirty exhortations not to take offense, all directed at men! Like take the plank out of your own eye before pointing to the sawdust in the eye of another. Or if your enemy offends you, to turn your cheek to him and forgive. What a counter cultural way to live!
Asha’s training from The Hunger Project empowers her to ignore the slings and arrows from others and stay focused on her goals. In a small village where her social status puts her at the bottom of the heap, she quietly takes her legal place at the table with the men and makes things happen.
From the point of view of a Western male, it looks like she’s had to eat a lot of humble pie. But now I see it as grace. Every day she reaches into her depths to find it. But she does not care as long as she can continue to stop child marriages.
Martin Luther King said in his essay ‘An Experiment in Love’ not to “seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding... The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.”
The challenge for me now is how do I stop taking offense, and concentrate more on making a difference?
Watch out for the second lesson in manhood: White Male Privilege
The Hunger Project is a global NGO committed to the end of hunger and poverty by pioneering sustainable, grassroots, women-centered strategies and advocating for their widespread adoption in countries throughout the world. In India they coordinate the training and development of the most marginalised elected women leaders for the entire five years of their tenure in office, enabling them to be effective in ending hunger and poverty in their villages.