I've actually mentioned this idea before, in my The Sciences Sing a Lullaby post, but in the months between then and now the "these are my people" thing has become something of a mantra, and I'd like to expand on it a little bit, because sometimes it's a really hard sentiment to carry actively even though I've found it both helpful and incredibly important.
On a personal level, I find it hardest to love people who hold opinions that, if turned into actions, would directly harm me or people I'm close to. It can be genuinely dangerous to ignore the fact that these people hold these opinions--and that makes approaching them from a place of love terrifying and, admittedly, sometimes impossible. But ultimately, they, too, are my people. We're all we've got, and we have to find ways to live together, which means we simply can't get away with ignoring one another, at least not all the time. Reconciling that takes a great deal of courage and often a fair amount of skill--being able to discuss this thing but not that thing, being able to tread the line between being your true self--taking that risk--and not exposing yourself to real danger. It's especially difficult when some of those people are unavoidable parts of your life. Coworkers or employers, family members or close neighbors. Those people with whom you necessarily share investment in something, and yet are simultaneously invested in things that are in direct conflict. How do you balance that without silencing yourself?
The gist of it is this: We're all we've got. I admit it: sometimes that's unbelievably discouraging and even terrifying. There are genuinely bad people, and they're loud about it. Peaceful people are abundant--you're probably surrounded by them right now--but they are, on the whole, quiet. You go a hundred days of never having a negative interaction, and that's normal, so you don't notice it, but on the hundred-and-first day, you see something terrible--and it sticks with you. Bad people are noisy, and bad things are impossible to ignore. When I see something devastating, like a mass shooting or a bombing, "these are my people" comes into my head, and it's a sad thought. It's painful, devoid of the optimism it's meant to inspire. To put it bluntly: I hate those days. Sometimes those days are wholly debilitating. But usually one of two things happens: either I find a way to forgive, or I try to remember that all the other people involved--the helpers, the victims, the bystanders--they're all my people, too. We're all in it together.
Ultimately, though, I've found that the vast majority of the time, "these are my people" is a very positive thought. I occasionally find that it completely changes my perspective on what's going on in a situation--is that man shouting at the bus driver because he's a mean person, or because he's tired and uncomfortable like the rest of us and has run out of the patience to keep himself in check (like we all sometimes do)? "These are my people" often translates, for me, into "these people are like me, and I am like them, and most of us are mostly good most of the time, even if we're wearing a mask right now that isn't our best self." It serves as a reminder that lives are messy and we can't always keep the mess contained, and that's a forgivable offense, and moreover, that we will probably, for the most part, forgive each other. Anger and frustration aren't the same as hate. Outside the internet, hate is a rather rarer thing.
It's easier, of course, when I see someone doing something kind or inspiring: it's a spectacular feeling to be able to say "these are my people" with pride when a pair of teenagers helps a harried mother get her baby's stroller up the subway steps when she's discovered to her dismay that the elevators are out of service, or when people clear up their mess during a restaurant's lunch rush so the busboy has an easier time, or when it's something as simple as holding a door for someone else. "These are my people," I think, and it's like a light in my soul.
But "these are my people" has also become more than a mantra that helps me get through the day when I'm not feeling very brave, a more recent development that I find infinitely more difficult to hold onto. In the end, "these are my people" is a call to action, a reminder that love is, to be a little cheesy, also a verb. If those are my people, then I am their people. As much as they're all I've got, I'm all they've got. They are important to me, and I am important to them, and we are important to each other. And as much as the phrase alone changed things, this more complete understanding of it, the point where I realized I'm part of "people," was a real game-changer.
I'm tempted to use the word "responsible," as in "we're responsible for each other," because that's kind of what I'm getting at. But anyone who's ever loved an addict can attest to that being a very, very dangerous way to frame the idea. Let me be clear: we are never responsible for other people's destructive behavior, whether that behavior turns inward or outward. But if they are my people, I'm responsible for them in a number of other ways. For one thing, I'm responsible for my attitude toward them--for reminding myself as often as possible that I have no idea what else is going on behind the anger about a coffee mix-up or the crying toddler, and that I have, at times, been both a crying toddler and very angry at people who didn't deserve it--and often enough, the reasons for both behaviors are remarkably similar.
I'm also responsible for helping make sure other people are safe. That means both directly--if I can protect a person from immediate harm, I probably ought to do so--and indirectly. To be indirectly responsible for safety means "if you see something, say something." It also means that if I hear something, and it's in any way safe to do so, I should say something. If I'm among friends and hear a remark that could harm someone else, I should at least attempt to show whoever says the harmful thing that it's harmful. It takes a lot of bravery to do that, to challenge the people around me, and I don't always manage it, but I know that when I don't, I've let my people down--by failing to do what I can to make my people better. Both the injurer and injured are my people, and I've failed both of them.
This is a hard position to hold. People from all across the spectrum scoff and even push back against it, for a lot of reasons, some of them absolutely understandable. It's always difficult, and it can be dangerous, and I would never suggest that I expect every person to be able to do it all the time. I've certainly had arguments about it, often with people I love very much, but I try to make clear that if I do say something, it's because I believe that they are fundamentally capable of being better, of doing more good and less harm. Often, I believe that they're not only capable of being better, but that they are better, better people who happened to do a thing that doesn't suit them. You are my people, and they are my people, and I see no reason we should willfully hurt each other when we're perfectly capable of better. I should hope, moreover, that my people expect better out of me than I always give. I want to be corrected if I've done something hurtful, even though that correction can be difficult to hear.
It's a process, and it's never complete, and there will be setbacks. But I've found it all worth it. The disappointments are a small price for the frequent joys and moments of connection, the tense circling with someone I'm not sure is safe balanced out by every instance when someone has told me I've helped them be more caring people. The times people scoff at me for using phrases like "from a place of love" when talking about some truly life-or-death battles are worth it because I'm hoping that between us--between the love and the rage that are both completely valid--we can get to a place that's good. It's all been worth it.