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The Next Right Thing

I finished a book this week called Dear Martin by Nic Stone. It’s a fantastic young adult novel about a seventeen year old African American boy named Justyce who has an encounter with racial profiling. This experience begins a realization of all the different areas of his life racism exists (socially, legalistically, familially, media-wise, etc.). During all of this, he confides in a teacher whose character essentially serves as an external processor for Jus. They have a conversation one day where Jus expresses the defeat he feels. He doesn’t understand the point in trying to “be good” or “do good” if the world is so deeply screwed up. Doc (his teacher) consoles him and then asks him this question:

“If nothing in the world ever changes, what type of man are you gonna be?”

This becomes the central question Jus realizes he needs to answer or even just embody as he goes through life. 

There was a side storyline within the book of a white classmate of Jus’s who continuously makes racist remarks and slowly begins to recognize his own ingrained racism that he had not previously been conscious of. As he realizes this, he begins to make choices to attempt to right the wrongs he’s done. By the end of the novel, Jus reaches out to this classmate in an act of forgiveness. The evolution of their friendship and Jus’s willingness to believe this classmate could make new and better decisions made me suddenly aware of how often I have recently started seeing this particular concept in young adult literature and media.

Jus’s decision to focus on what type of man he could be (and what type of man his classmate could be) despite the chaos in the world around him reminded me of the song in the recently released kid’s movie, Frozen 2, “The Next Right Thing”. If you’ve never heard it before, the song is sung by a main character who is at her lowest mentally and emotionally. She decides, though, that no matter how bad things were or are, she can choose to just do the next right thing:

This grief has a gravity, 

it pulls me down

But a tiny voice whispers in my mind.

You are lost, hope is gone

But you must go on

And do the next right thing

This next choice is one that I can make

So I’ll walk through this night

Stumbling blindly toward the light

And do the next right thing

What a joyful and uplifting song for a children’s movie, right?

The teacher’s question to Justyce and the lyrics Anna sings in her darkest moments, then led me to think about the overarching theme of the fourth season of the television series, The Good Place.

I know it seems like I’m going all over the place and reeeally reaching…but just bear with me. 

Without spoiling anything, one of the main characters makes a statement that determines the rest of the season:

“What matters isn’t if people are good or bad. What matters is if they’re trying to be better today than they were yesterday.”

This. Y’all. This is the concept that Generation Z is growing up with in their movies and books and television. This concept that people can suck, you can suck, but you have the ability to decide “what kind of man you’re going to be”. You have the ability to decide to do the next right thing. You have the ability to decide to be a little better today than you were yesterday.

As I mulled this over, what struck me even more is that this concept directly contradicts and destroys the mob mentality that is cancel culture. If you haven’t heard of it (which I’d be surprised if you haven’t), cancel culture is a form of public boycott or shaming of an individual or group that calls attention to a problematic behavior or unpopular opinion. Its origins are rooted in social media and our ability as consumers and users of the Internet to completely delete someone out of our digital lives based on their actions or how we perceive them. The internet has cancelled many a celebrity and Joe Shmo who put their foot in their mouth. Louis C.K. got cancelled. James Charles got cancelled and then uncancelled. It’s a simultaneously rule-based and chaotic world out there in the Internet (but that’s a conversation for a different time).

While I am all for holding people accountable for their actions, here is what cancel culture truly does though…cancel culture is the mass decision that someone cannot ever get better. When you cancel someone, you are saying to them that you are certain they can never move past who they are at that moment, they can never make a better choice, they can never mature emotionally or intellectually, they will remain who they are at that moment of their bad decision forever and ever. And since we are capable of expressing those sentiments about someone’s character, you take away their ability to ever be better. They’ve been cancelled. They aren’t relevant anymore. They aren’t listened to anymore. They aren’t followed on social media. They are demeaned. Their word means nothing now and it’s because their ability to be able to grow and mature and evolve has been stripped from them. 

The subconscious is such a powerful thing. If a human being is told by hundreds, if not thousands, of other human beings that they have no hope for changing or evolving…they will believe it to be true. Self-fulfilling prophecy can be real and harmful. They can’t learn from their mistakes if we don’t give them that option.

This concept of the next right thing, choosing to be a little better than we were yesterday, deciding what kind of person we are going to be in a world that we have no control over…it destroys cancel culture. It tells our upcoming generation of children and teens that they can make better choices and they can learn from their mistakes. It’s so freaking hard and it requires work. Recognizing and accepting that you were wrong and choosing to apologize and make better choices in response to that is so very difficult.

But we can do it.

Nic Stone, the author of Dear Martin, may completely disagree with what I pulled from this book but, hey, that’s the downfall of being an author isn’t it? Not being able to control what your readers get out of your work and what they don’t. However, Justyce’s decision to be in control of what kind of man he was going to be and to recognize his classmate’s ability to be better, if only he gives him the option to do so, is 100% the most realistic and biblical form of forgiveness I can imagine. Justyce doesn’t ever say that what his classmate did and said out of his racism was okay. He did not wave it off and give this kid a free pass. He helped open his eyes and teach him and gave him the option to do the next right thing.

I think we, as a society, have a tendency to believe that forgiveness is cute and fluffy. We think forgiveness means telling someone what they did to us was fine or that we have to be best friends now that we’ve forgiven someone and, sorry, but forgiveness is far more badass than that. Forgiveness is saying “what you did sucked and it hurt me and now I want to give you the chance to do better”.

Forgiveness also doesn’t mean keeping people in your life that cause toxicity or trauma. You can forgive someone, give them the opportunity to grow, and simultaneously decide that their continued presence in your space is not beneficial to you. That is not anti-forgiveness. It’s the boundaries-facet to forgiveness.

I know none of this is necessarily revolutionary but for someone who struggles to understand and act on forgiveness…it feels pretty revolutionary.

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