Always interpret another’s actions in a light most favorable to that person.
~ from The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius
I’m a huge Oprah fan. I didn’t often watch her television show, and I don’t follow her on social media, but in her roles as an actress, an interviewer, and a speaker, Oprah has always struck me as a person of tremendous integrity, grace, and influence. And perhaps most importantly, she’s used that integrity, grace, and influence to help others.
I was reminded of how much I admire Oprah when she recently accepted the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globe Awards. She talked about a “new day on the horizon,” noting that “when that new day finally dawns, it will be because a lot of magnificent women... and some pretty phenomenal men... take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘me too’ again.” Listening to both her message and the force with which she delivered it, I was moved, excited, and inspired to be a part of the change.
That is, until she used part of her address to thank Tonya Harding for sharing her story in the movie I, Tonya.
I was stunned. I vividly remember the story of Tonya Harding conspiring with her ex-husband to intentionally injure Nancy Kerrigan, her competition for the 1994 Olympics. I was incensed by what she’d done and furious that she was allowed to skate in the Olympics. So I disappointedly wondered, “How could Oprah thank Tonya Harding and in so doing, help make her a celebrity?”
But what do Harding’s reprehensible behavior and Oprah’s shout out to her have to do with Ignatius’ invitation to interpret another’s actions in a light most favorable to that person?
Well, I went to see I, Tonya. Part of me didn’t want to – didn’t want to contribute to something that profited someone who’d done something horrible. But I decided to go, partly because my family wanted to see it and partly to see Allison Janney who’d won the Golden Globe for her incredible performance as Harding’s mother.
When I walked out of the movie, I had a very different perspective about Tonya Harding and an even greater appreciation for Oprah. I realized that I hadn’t taken Oprah’s comments in a light most favorable to Oprah, and just as importantly, I hadn’t interpreted Harding’s actions 25 years ago in a way most favorable to her.
Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t emerge from the movie liking Tonya Harding or forgiving her for what she did. I, Tonya doesn’t celebrate Harding and her role in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan. It clearly implicates Harding and portrays her as culpable. But more important than its depiction of Harding, the movie shows us the classism that Harding endured, a classism that clearly exists today. Harding was a tremendous athlete and a phenomenal skater. But she was also poor, and that poverty was a visible hindrance to her success as a skater. The girls and young women Harding competed against had money and that meant access to the best coaches and equipment. In addition to the financial advantage, her competitors ‘fit the mold,’ a mold that was important to the skating association and the judges at the competitions. Because of her lack of wealth, Tonya Harding could not compete on a level playing field (in this case, ice rink) with her competitors.
I think it’s in this light that Oprah thanked Harding for sharing her story. Oprah wasn’t forgiving Harding for her role in Kerrigan’s attack, wasn’t absolving her of her responsibility, wasn’t implying she should not have received the consequences she did. No, Oprah thanked Harding because she realized that Harding’s story is about something larger than individual actions. Her story teaches us about classism, much like stories of the brutalization of young black men teach us about racism, and stories of sexual harassment teach us about sexism. And that’s how Ignatius might invite us to consider Harding’s story and Oprah’s appreciation for her sharing it.
Imagine if we approached difficult situations with this same openness. Imagine how our thoughts and interactions would change if every time we dealt with a complex social concern (gender inequality, racial bias, classism...) or every sticky political issue (immigration, taxation...) we tried to understand both the issue and the person delivering that issue “in a light most favorable” to it/them. Doing so may not change our minds, but it would help us understand how good-hearted, intelligent people can disagree. And that understanding can lead to fruitful dialogue, greater awareness, and more empathy.
In her speech at the Golden Globes, Oprah declared, “Speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.” But those truths can sometimes be lost on us if we don’t listen to them in a light most favorable to the people who tell them. That’s how we learn; that’s how we grow; that’s how we begin to address the injustices that face us daily.
Ignatius, Oprah, and Tonya Harding together gave me a greater appreciation for all three of them. Thanks to Ignatius for the perspective, thanks to Oprah for the wisdom, and yes, even thanks to Tonya Harding for a story that helped me understand both the perspective and wisdom more clearly.
Executive Director of the Ignatian Spirituality Center/Director of Ignatian Formation and Teacher at Seattle Preparatory School
Matt has worked in Jesuit high schools for 36 years and has been the Executive Director of the ISC for the past two. For Matt, trying to apply Ignatian Spirituality to everyday life poses some of life’s greatest challenges and, at the same time, presents some of life’s greatest rewards. Stay tuned as this blog will reflect both.