Compassion-Led Practice Vs. Freedom From Consequences

At the beginning of the school year, despite not being in school, I raided the back-to-college section at Target with a friend and brought home things I’d never intended to buy. (You know, as a casual Target run usually goes.) Among the knickknacks and forty-eight-cent tape dispensers was one of those small, interchangeable sign boards. It was magnetized; it was green and purple; it was under $5. I caved to my inner white femme (not to be confused with my outer white femme) and took it home. The next day, I carefully sifted through the letters and spelled out a declaration: “LEAD WITH LOVE.”

The sign has since evolved to include more text, but that original phrase remains, staring me in the face every time I open my fridge. It’s probably time for something new, but I can’t quite bring myself to start fresh again, because it’s a simple thought I take very seriously and an action I’m prioritizing as part of my return to the desert. It feels a little squirmy to say I’m leading intentionally; I feel like it’s always been considered cooler/more humble/more subversive to sort of imply that any authority any of us has just fell onto our shoulders by chance. It’s the easy way out, in part because it gives us wiggle room to duck out of things we don’t want to be responsible for or bad decisions we’ve made—if we weren’t doing it on purpose, if we didn’t know our actions were setting an example, it’s not our fault, right?

That said, as I continue working toward a more inclusive musical community and holding the people and institutions around me accountable for misdeeds that need correcting, it’s disingenuous at best to pretend I’m doing this accidentally. Maybe when I was just starting to post about gender and misogyny and music it was true. At the time, it was more a byproduct of my reality than a conscious choice. But it’s not now. I may not work at the forefront of the Phoenix community, I may not be gigging and rehearsing nonstop like some of my friends, but I’m sticking around. Checking up on people. Listening. Taking it all in and allowing myself the time and space to think about what the interactions and decisions around us mean to the people who don’t always get a fair say. I’m aiming to be not only a voice but an example—where and when possible. That might not be every day, but hopefully it’s whenever someone feels left behind.

I’m leading intentionally, for better or for worse. (We now pause for five seconds while I go crawl into a corner and consider the ramifications of putting that statement on the internet.) And one of the things that’s become increasingly clear to me both during my time in Los Angeles and since my return to Phoenix is that I lead best, most effectively, when my practice is compassion-based. That doesn’t mean rolling over for anyone who wants me to back down, but it means I’m approaching the scene with one thought in mind above all else: how do I take the people and skills and knowledge we have in our community and use those to make something better? There isn’t usually a single answer for this, and I’ve had more than one late-night conversation with friends about how to most effectively approach various situations I think we have the power to improve. My personal goals for this endeavor are varied, but a few of them are as follows: protecting folks who are unfairly picked on and need a more tolerant creative space, increasing the number of ongoing conversations about why we’re doing what we’re doing, advocating for a greater awareness of our place not only as artists in today’s society but as early-career musicians working within and around various institutions, and diminishing the overall amount of interpersonal obligation that can be exploited and abused.

There’s a lot to keep track of in that list, and it’s why I spend more time listening than talking right now. I want to hear how everyone’s doing and find out where they’re running into roadblocks both socially and professionally. This way, the needs of the community become more evident rather quickly—sometimes we need to be more tolerant and patient at jam sessions; sometimes we need to extend a hand or an invitation for someone to join a group they’d really benefit from. Those are easy. But sometimes we need to consider how we’re holding people accountable for pervasive hurt they’ve caused to many members of the community, and that’s where things get dicey.

Consequences, as a rule, are hard. I tend to avoid making sweeping statements about them, because for most things not directly involving me, I’m not qualified to join that conversation. However, when I am involved, I’ve found it increasingly valuable to prioritize my own boundaries (and to encourage others to prioritize theirs). It’s vital to spend our time and energy advocating for ourselves and our personal wellbeing, and when someone’s causing harm, the new boundaries we put in place can frequently stack on top of others’ reactions. Or, put another way, each of us actively taking care of ourselves and imposing boundaries to protect our wellbeing can make the person causing harm feel as though they are being unfairly penalized by a large group of folks.

Here’s the thing, though. I stumbled across (and shared) a screenshot on Facebook from a Jennifer Michelle Greenberg tweet that made the point excellently:

“Reporting an abuser doesn’t ruin their life. They did that themselves. Reporting an abuser doesn’t damage their reputation. It makes it more accurate. Reporting an abuser doesn’t hurt their family. It protects them from abuse. Reporting an abuser isn’t gossip. It’s integrity.”

Now, to be clear, we aren’t always dealing with abusers. In fact, frequently we’re not. Sometimes it’s folks having a tough time who are taking it out on the wrong people. Sometimes it’s kids figuring their lives out and being more aggressive than they need to be. Not everyone who hurts us (any of us) is an abuser or manipulative or even particularly two-faced. Many of the folks I’ve encountered in the community take correction really well and apologize appropriately when they’ve screwed up. However, it’s important to note that an apology, no matter how truly meant or well-delivered, does not serve as a free pass for unrestricted access back into someone’s life. It’s also worth pointing out that at least in Phoenix, there are many hurts that go unaddressed for a long time. In cases where severe harm is dealt or active harm is caused over an extended period of time, waiting around for an apology isn’t always wise or safe, regardless of who the perpetrator is or was to the victim.

With these instances of active, prolonged harm, whisper networks come into play, regardless of the perpetrator’s demographic. When I’m not a target, I tend to use them to check up on folks who are—make sure they’re doing okay, find out what other people are seeing, that sort of thing. When I am in the line of fire, the networks become an irreplaceable way of getting advice and additional perspectives from others without bringing anything public before I’m ready. I’ll refer you back to that Greenberg tweet: this isn’t gossip. It’s integrity. It’s also more than self-preservation; it’s an important step toward finding out how many folks have been impacted by similar situations, sometimes arising from the same person. It’s how we know the difference between isolated incidents and a consistent pattern of behavior. It’s protection for ourselves and protection for each other. But it’s not gossip.

And I can still take these steps to protect myself and others in a compassion-led practice.

See, compassion isn’t the absence of consequences. It’s a commitment to taking things on faith, and often a commitment to absorbing a certain amount of hurt while understanding that a good deal of it is unintentional. It’s a commitment to strengthening ourselves so we can strengthen others, but it’s also a realization that we are not obligated to save everyone. It’s an understanding that all we can do is our best, that folks will have their own feelings and opinions and reactions, and in the cases where something is truly insurmountable, we can walk away and live to fight on.

I am particularly bad at that last one, so it’s a good thing it’s a practice, not a perfect. (Okay, I’ll stop making bad musician jokes now.)

This sort of piggybacks off my Female Friendships post, and I want to take a moment to acknowledge that. (It’s also going to link to several upcoming posts, but I can’t point you at those quite yet.) A lot of us get forced together through school or combos or whatever, and it’s really easy to feel like we’re all obligated to be friends. We are not obligated to be friends. With anyone. Because first, we’re all capable of being professional with people we either don’t like or don’t have an active relationship with; second, as I said in the other post, some people just don’t mesh well. This is true across all demographics and gender spectrums (or lack thereof). And in some cases, cutting those ties and opting out of a relationship can make life better, though it usually sucks in the short-term. We will always have people in our lives who spend most of their time in that We Have To Work Together box that’s stuffed away on some dusty closet shelf in the back of our brain. That’s okay. But even as artists, even as people who at times bleed for a living, we are not obligated or required to share the depths of our hearts with people we don’t want rooting around in there. It’s okay to keep the essence of us limited to ourselves and the people we trust to see us at our worst.

In the way of consequences, boundaries are my biggest point of advocacy. They’re the safest option that allows each of us to protect ourselves from present or future harm without being actively malicious to the perpetrator. And yes, sometimes boundaries still come off as malicious—I’ve had plenty of people react negatively to changed patterns of behavior that don’t benefit them. But they are allowed to feel that way, and it is not our responsibility to make them feel better. Deciding not to prioritize a friendship, no matter how long it’s been, is valid and important and absolutely the right thing to do if that decision keeps you safe and happy.

That is compassion-led practice: taking care of ourselves so we can better support our community. So, friends, lead with love. Just remember that starts with us. ♦

Thanks for reading! I blog every week about music and sexism and misogyny and assault and trying to navigate the world even when everything sucks. If you like what you see, I’d love to have you back again next week! To follow my ramblings and creative process in real time, or to support the work I do as an artist and advocate, you can find me on Patreon and @honestlyeris on Instagram.