My New Year’s Resolution

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Dear friends,

As we enter a new year, I want to share a simple but healing practice with you for our relationships. It comes from Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature. Wiesel said,

“Never allow anyone to be humiliated in your presence.”

We all know what humiliation feels like. It literally means to be reduced to dirt (humus). Whether through a look, a word, an action, or a structure, humiliation makes us feel smaller, belittled, ground down and degraded. When we humiliate, we treat people as if they’re worth less, if not altogether worthless. And that means that we treat them like they’re no longer made and loved by God — no longer our neighbors in creation.

I offer three simple observations on humiliation:

First, few things are more painful and destructive than humiliation. We instinctively recognize and recoil against it, because each of us has a God-given need to be seen as valuable. Humiliation burns like an acid to intimidate, tear down, and dismantle our inner sense of dignity. Thus, it ignites our anger, resentment, and hatred. Directly or indirectly, humiliation fuels alienation and conflict within us and between us, because it triggers an existential alarm that says, “Make it stop!”

Second, we often mistake humiliation for disagreement. Disagreement is helpful and important. It can be an act of love to tell one another, “I think you’re missing something; here’s another perspective” or “I think that’s wrong; here’s how” or “I think that’s harmful; here’s why.” But humiliation is different. It expresses disagreement through diminishing the other’s worth and trying to make them feel less than a valuable human being. For example, “Only idiots or traitors think like that.”

Third, humiliation never opens hearts, changes minds, or shows a better way forward. It hardens the heart, entrenches mindsets of enmity, and supercharges conflict.

I return to Wiesel: “Never allow anyone to be humiliated in your presence.” Perhaps Wiesel was so absolute with words like never and anyone because he survived the Holocaust, and he understood that humiliation is a seed for hatred and violence. The Holocaust wouldn’t have been possible in a society that disavowed humiliating others.

In our time of escalating polarization, imagine if each of us signed up to practice Wiesel’s wisdom. Discuss, always. Disagree, when helpful or necessary. But humiliate, never. The fire of polarization would be starved of one its crucial oxygen sources, and our rancorous bitterness and increasingly aggressive conflicts would slowly begin healing. Our relationships would be nourished with dignity, respect, and value, even when we still fiercely disagree.

One way that I’m (very imperfectly!) working on this is by eliminating insults from my vocabulary, especially on social media. It’s sorely tempting to respond to insults with insults, to sarcasm with even more withering cleverness. But I’ve made this a rule for myself: never insult. I’m also committed to challenging people I actually agree with when they switch from disagreeing with others to humiliating them. Humiliation betrays my core conviction that the other person is still made and loved by God. And it never helps: it temporarily soothes my ego, hardens the other, and drives us further apart.

How do you want to join the upbuilding resistance against humiliation in 2022? This practice is challenging, but it promises joy, increased connection, and healing relationships.

“Never allow anyone to be humiliated in your presence.”

 

 

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