“‘Fight back but don’t burn it down’ is my middle name,” I texted my boss the other day. This statement pulled me into a moment of reflection. I thought about Haley of a few years ago, and even Haley before this internship, and realized how much I’ve changed. And I’m really excited about that.
For as long as I can remember, sweet has been one of the main adjectives others use to describe me. At a retreat for a student organization I was a new member of, we wrote notes on posters for our fellow members; my poster had “sweet” on it at least fifteen times. Friends try not to cuss or talk about their wild weekends around me. I’ll smile if I make eye contact with you. I like herbal tea, floral patterns, and Jane Austen novels. The other day, someone legitimately referred to me as “the purest noodle.” It’s pretty easy to see why sweet is one of my most common descriptors.
That’s not a bad thing, for sure. I find a lot of strength in my gentleness. People can be so quick to judge and attack; I want to challenge the world’s harshness and hatred with trust and kindness.
But as others have continued to call me sweet, it’s become more and more important to me as a piece of my identity. I clung to this word and let it define me. I put on fake smiles when I wasn’t feeling it, to keep up the persona. I held back from sharing my authentic thoughts and emotions. I ran from conflict the way birds run from the water in this vine. The whole time, I thought I was doing the Right Thing, because people kept calling me sweet, and that’s what I’m supposed to be, right? I was being sweet for sure, but not my full self.
And then this summer I interned at a refugee resettlement agency. (Read more about how much I love refugees here and here.) I was put in situations where people I cared about, our refugee clients, weren’t getting what they needed or deserved. Being denied interpretation services, barely given the time of day at a doctor’s office, told that an appointment must have been canceled when I know it wasn’t. In those moments, I had a choice: lie down and let myself and my client get walked all over, or fight back.
So I learned to fight back.
With kindness and respect, always. With humility, acknowledging that I certainly don’t do everything right either, always. With compassion and concern, always. But still fighting back. And it wasn’t easy, but that fighting spirit within me pushed up through the weeds of my desire to be liked by everyone everywhere all the time. There was certainly a learning curve, but at the end of the day, I’m walking away from this summer knowing how to fight back.
Conflict doesn’t scare me anymore. I’m no longer prioritizing my sweet reputation above all else. When I need to stand up for something I believe in, advocate for people I care about, or raise a personal concern, my heart pounds a little faster but I still speak. I’ve realized that this world needs me to be my true self, nothing less. Sweet is part of my story, but not the whole one.
I’d say I’m a sweet fighter, a love warrior, to borrow from Glennon Doyle. I value kindness, I’ll give you a warm smile, I’ll express sincere gratitude—but I’ll also insist on rights being respected, ask for what’s needed even if it’s inconvenient, and hold people accountable for doing their jobs. That’s my authentic self, and it’s who I’m committed to being.
Kindness goes so far in this world that sometimes seems overrun by bitterness and hatred. I truly value that. But where there is injustice, just being sweet does not go far enough. Where there is injustice, to love is to fight. To fight kindly, respectfully, patiently, but also to fight hard, well, and persistently. Friends, let us always be kind—and, let us never back down from a fight when it is needed for love’s sake.