Sometimes, entering our house from the backyard, the domain of our dogs, I’ll say, a little reproachfully, “I got poop on my shoes!”—directed at the assigned pooper scooper. A defensive, “It’s probably dirt!” comes back.
Dirt or poop? I maintain to said pooper scooper that there’s a significant difference, easily discerned. Poop stinks; dirt smells pleasant—blending scents of flowers and breezes and long, hard history into a subtle richness. Dirt is good for growing things. Some kinds of manure are good for fertilizer, but not dog poop. It’s good for nothing, except to be thrown out.
It’s important to know the difference between dirt and poop and to call poop, “poop.”
Once upon a time in a well-loved community—doesn’t matter who; doesn’t matter what--somebody did something that was blatantly wrong. It was plainly wrong and a hallmark for “wrong” is that it unfairly harmed another person or, in this case, many people. The wrongdoer was full of poop.
And I saw and experienced how difficult it can be to call poop, “poop.” The problem is, when we love and admire someone, seeing them in a certain way, and then they suddenly, dramatically become another way—and it’s full of poop—it’s shocking. It’s disorienting, we lose our bearings. It shakes our ground, shatters our sense of things. (That’s before the difficult feelings of hurt, betrayal, and anger set in.) The shock is heightened if the person was a leader whose goodness and sense of direction gave hope and compass to the lost and struggling. Reeling in disbelief, we’re in a weak position to sanely and decisively confront.
But it is essential in these moments that the community, wounded though it is, maintain a steady sense of what is dirt and what is poop and keep calling poop, “poop.” Then, even though our worlds are in upheaval, at least the basic principles of reality remain the same. We’ve been shocked and disoriented by a person’s double or hidden or secret life. But right is still right; wrong is still wrong; up is still up; down is still down. If we can’t call poop, “poop”—then we lose the person we thought we knew and our principles. If we can call poop, “poop” then we can begin to re-ground and reorient around the same principles of reality. To have a deep sense that reality and our principles remain the same in the face of such great loss and upheaval is soothing, healing and essential.
So, once we’re over the sheer fragmenting shock of the news, it is vital to roundly confront the poop. We may hesitate, not wanting to appear judgmental or harsh. Perhaps we feel sorry for the wrongdoer, not wanting to shamefully face him or her with the devastating wrong committed. But there is a way to confront people with their poop which is not judgmental in the hateful sense but is discerning in a life-giving way. Here are the spiritual principles for scooping poop.
First, I don’t know why poop is so attractive, but it seems to be at times! So… poop gets denied as we furtively hang onto it. If you don’t gently and firmly point my poop out, I can go on in damaging denial for a long time. We need to take responsibility for discerning each other’s poop and to muster the courage to confront the stink of it or else poop can be subtly addictive and fester and grow and spread to others.
Second, as you prepare to confront another’s poop, remember your own poop. We are all full of it at times. Truly. And if you think you don’t have any poop, you’re probably not the person to confront. Remember your own poop. Think deeply on it before confronting someone else’s.
Third, this is a delicate balance, but it is crucial that the poop be thrown away—NOT THE PERSON. A main point in labeling the poop is to help the person being lost under increasing piles of it get out from under it. There is a sweet-smelling, loved-of-God person in there. We must never forget that--even as we confront quite damaging poop that legitimately injured and angered us. (Notice the irony of not confronting so we can be nice while just letting the person drown under the piles of poop. It’s truly a hard balance to strike!)
Fourth, when someone has betrayed or victimized us or someone we love, it is natural to get quite angry—enraged, really. Outrage can feel right or righteous. But when we confront out of unmodulated anger, the outcome is not righteous. Enraged, we end up throwing the person away with the poop. It is never right to throw the person away—however little of their personhood is left. It is always the point to dig through the poop for the person.
So take time to modulate your rage, in two steps. First, let yourself feel heartbreak over the lost relationship. Anger is our main defense against pain and sorrow—let the sorrow come and the anger will recede. Remember the closeness you enjoyed with the person—the way his wise insights opened new worlds or her compassion pierced through despair. Remember the lively, refreshing bond you found pleasure or relief or sustenance in. Nobody’s all bad—there’s a decent person still full of potential (as we human beings are) under the piles of poop. Temper rage at the egregious betrayal by recalling the honest good and thus inviting sadness over the loss.
Then, step two, let your awareness shift from the carnage they’ve created to the carnage they’re lost in. Maybe in the moment they appear to be living large, living the good life. But the good life is never sustainable without good character. Let yourself feel pity about the inevitable horrible mess they’re mired in. Heartbreak and pity soften rage--and soften your confrontation. Harsh or holier-than-thou confrontations trigger defensiveness; gentle but firm confrontation is more likely to invite change. And that is the point: to invite change—to call out the better person you desperately hope is still there.
Finally, forthrightly but vulnerably tell the person the wounding impact their poor choices have had on you and others. Be concrete and specific about their behaviors while making “I” statements describing the hurt, devastation, shame or fear their behaviors have triggered. Don’t go ad hominem (against the person). Don’t say, “You’re a rotten liar!” Do say, “Your lies have devastated me and destroyed my trust.” Don’t say, “You dirty, good-for-nothing hypocrite!!!” Do say, “Your choices so desecrate the very standards you’ve always taught! Your behavior is so wrong and you need to let people know how wrong your actions have been or they’re likely to think your life and teaching were all lies and throw aside all the right behaviors we believe in so deeply!” Rehearse with a trusted friend. It’s easy to get muddled in emotional confrontations.
Poop is inherently messy. There won’t be a clean or perfect way to confront it. You won’t always get the response you hoped for. Let it go; it is still good and right to have spoken your honest feelings and principles.
It is good and right—and healing and freeing—to call poop, “poop.”