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Jen Hatmaker on Having the Courage to Tear Down Unjust Systems

Jen Hatmaker on Having the Courage to Tear Down Unjust Systems

Jen Hatmaker occupies an interesting spot in culture. On the one hand, she and her family hosted HGTV’s Your Big Family Renovation, portraying a good-natured, loving dynamic that made for some great television. On the other hand, the New York Times bestselling author is a fierce advocate for marginalized groups, who’s demonstrated a willingness to rattle cages and upend cultural idols for the sake of justice.

Hatmaker is both of these things, and lots more. In her new book Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire: The Guide to Being Glorious You, she effortlessly inhabits the many sides of her personality with confidence, compassion and concern for others.

In our conversation with her, Hatmaker opened up about releasing a book in quarantine, why she takes issue with the idea of being “self-made” and what it takes to be a real advocate.

It seems like lots of people are struggling with what to do right now because there’s just no playbook. 

Jen: Totally. And everybody responds differently. There are some people who are so flattered by the gravity of this moment and quarantine that there is no mental bandwidth at all for reading or for art, for anything that is nourishing in that department. I completely understand that when you’re just trying to keep the wheels on every single day. And then, there are others who are gobbling it up right now. Like all the literature, all the music, all the art, all the podcasts. There’s really no one way to be or respond. Nothing’s right or wrong.

I’m wondering if you have anything to offer to the people who are really struggling right now — particularly extroverts for whom this whole quarantine is a drain on an almost spiritual level. 

Oh my goodness, my empathy is just through the roof. We’re not designed to flourish like this. So, I’m like a highly functioning introvert, a very socially functioning introvert, but we’re just not meant for this. This is not the way God made us. This is not the way community works. This is not the way neighborliness works.

I just wrote a book called Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire and I was researching for one chapter called, ironically, “I Need More Connection.” Didn’t see that coming. What I found is that loneliness is actually a greater predictor of an early death than smoking, drinking and obesity combined. It is real. This is no joke. We are absolutely designed to connect, and that affects our resiliency. It affects our optimism. And so, of course right now, in the absence of the ordinary ways we connect, people are suffering, and they’re sad. And so, here’s what I want to say to that. You’re not alone, and you’re not crazy.

We are actually really powerful creators. I wonder if we can imagine that we are not just at the end of a string that’s just tugging us along whichever way the loneliness is going to go. Rather, we have the capacity to create connection right now. We really do. It’s not in our ordinary formats. It’s not the ways that maybe we prefer or what really serves us well, but we can create connection.

In that book, you talk a lot about the myth of being “self-made.” What’s your issue with that term?

Such an idol. I’ve never bought into it. Never. I built my career so slowly, just clawing forward, one fistful of dirt at a time. And I was so greatly helped along the way by so many people who either took a few things off my plate to free up a little mental bandwidth or they mentored me specifically in my work. They encouraged me or pastored me or taught me. They invited me into their circles that were ten steps ahead of me. It never even occurred to me to ever say the phrase self-made. That is a lie. I just don’t it. I do not believe it. I don’t believe that that’s real. I think that is going to be at the dismissal of all the people who have ever stood with us and by us and for us on the way. It’s a very popular idea. Boy, that is just so American, isn’t it?

I think we grow up mythologizing the lone ranger, the cowboy …I realize I’m using exclusively male archetypes here. 

Well, you’re not wrong. It tends to run along gender lines sometimes. Women — and this is unfair, I’m painting with a wide brush, of course — but women tend to be more collaborative and share credit and share the microphone and share platforms a little quicker, in my experience.

But I don’t like this at all. It injects this pressure into the community that says, “If you’re not self-made, you’re just doing this wrong. You’re failing.” It’s so yucky. I hate this fake bar that we’ve set, and so I am a huge fan of tearing that one down brick by brick.

I love collaboration. I love mentorship. I am obsessed with sharing our platforms and our microphones and our ideas. I love it when people inside a career community say, “Let’s get together. What should we all be making? What should we all be expecting? What are the standards that we hold this industry to?” I just love that stuff.

I just believe very deeply that a rising tide lifts all the boats in the harbor. I really encourage people to consider never saying self-made again or never saying, “I’m going to have to do this on my own.” It’s just not true. Inviting people into my work and ministry and mission is probably the single greatest decision should I have ever made, for what it has created and produced in my own heart, soul and mind, and then, ultimately, what we have been able to create together to offer to the world.

A lot of us are so steeped in that idea that we don’t even know how to collaborate. Reaching out and asking for help feels like an unlearned skill. 

It’s not that anything’s wrong with us, it’s that we have been conditioned to project competency at all times. We know that that macho, individualistic behavior is rewarded. We’re going to have to overcome some cultural obstacles to get to the place where we say, “I will acknowledge my limitations. I will put myself in the posture of a learner.”

It’s a mental shift. It has to begin with possibility in your own mind. There’s a phrase that I put in the book that I borrowed from a CEO, who very much values a spirit of collaboration in his organization. He said that the more complicated the problem, the more people need to be involved in it. And we’ve got a lot of complicated problems to solve right now. A lot of us are in very complex situations. Some of those are just in our family, in our marriages and relationships. Some of those are in our work or our ministries, our missions. Some of it’s in what we’re doing in the world. So, the more complex, the more people. And so, he said the sentence that I loved. He said, “Many minds make bright work.” And I believe that. That has been absolutely true in my life.

Last question. You talk a lot about the courage of advocacy: that it takes being brave to stand up for others. What do you mean by that? 

We are wired to see both the suffering and the flourishing of human people. That’s how God created us in community and we have this really ancient wiring in our body which tells us that when the community is thriving, we all do.

What we all know is that the great majority of needs in the world are rooted in injustice. They are rooted in white supremacy. They are rooted in racism. They are rooted in misogyny and patriarchy. They’re rooted in abuse and power. That’s no mystery. That’s how the world has always worked.

Justice is a part of the fabric of our history. And those power differentials have always been in play, which have largely kept the same group of people on top and, more or less, the same people out, the same people oppressed and disenfranchised and marginalized. It’s just how it works.

So, if we are waiting on those systems to course correct on their own, it’s never going to happen. Nobody’s going to give up their power willingly. Nobody. Power differentials are not neutral. They serve the same little section of people at the expense of so many others.

That’s where courage comes in. If we are going to be advocates, that is going to mean we are confronting injustice. We are confronting a law or a doctrine or a system or a set of beliefs where somebody is paying the bill for somebody else’s power. That’s going to come with a great deal of challenge. It’s going to come with built-in defensiveness and denial, since nobody wants to admit that they’re the power player in an inequitable system. I mean, just drop the conversation of white supremacy into a largely white audience and see how well that goes. We’re defensive. We don’t want to see our complicity in these broken systems.

Courage is just going to be required there. No way around it. You will face resistance. You will be called names. You will have to forfeit your good standing, your sense of belonging in the dominant narrative. If you were a part of the community that was largely being served by the inequity that you were the recipient of, and that’s your community, you might lose your spot there.

The good news is, there is so much goodness to be seized when things turn equal, when we reach for justice, when systems are reversed and overturned, when we see repentance and change and equality centered. That is good for everyone.

Most of the unjust systems serve me. Almost all of them. I’m in all the top categories, almost. And so, if I wanted to hang onto that, I could, and I could just say, “Well, this isn’t hurting me.” But I find that a really empty, and I mean this gently, I hope it doesn’t sound harsh, but a cowardly way to live.

I want to be 95 years old on my death bed and have a good story to tell. When my grandkids and great-grandkids come to me and say, “What did you do when this was happening? What did you do when this was the way that your culture was operating? What’d you say?” I better have an answer. I don’t want to say, “You don’t understand how it was. You don’t understand how much I would lose. You don’t understand how hard that was to actually do.” I better have a blazing answer for what I did and what I said and who I stood with. I hope we all do that.

You can purchase Fierce, Free and Full of Fire here.

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