But it’s only on the brink that people find the will to change. Only at the precipice do we evolve. This is our moment.
The Day the Earth Stood Still
It’s been a turbulent year, now coming to a close on a turbulent note: war, disease, and racial discontent. But lately I find myself more concerned with what’s happening inside Americans than what’s going on between them.
All around me, I hear impatience with the struggles of others. This attitude reaches over a wide range of topics. They go beyond the frustrations of people in Ferguson to complaints from women in academia in general (and science and technology in particular) about rampant sexual harassment, complaints about racist and sexist comments defended as “jokes,” criticism of Adrian Peterson’s injuring his son, the physical abuse of women (such as Ray Rice’s wife), anything related to poverty, and the rape accusations directed at celebrities.
The responses sound like this: You’re too sensitive; you’re exaggerating; it’s rare; it’s your fault; it didn’t really happen; it happened a long time ago; I’m just tired of hearing about it; it makes me uncomfortable. These denials come, on different issues, from people across racial, educational, cultural, and socioeconomic lines. They flow from a belief that the complaining only makes things worse, and that if people would keep quiet and get to work, our problems would go away.
I suspect we react this way because other people’s pain reminds us of our own, and we don’t want to explore our own pain either. So we say, defensively, “Well, we had it tough too, but you don’t see me complaining. We’ve moved on.” Of course, if that’s your response to someone in pain, then no, you haven’t moved on. Closure doesn’t lead to anger at others for their suffering but empathy with them because you remember, without being emotionally overwhelmed, how suffering feels.Instead, so much in our culture maintains that painful experiences can’t hurt you if you don’t dwell on them. But failure to empathize indicates we’re still carrying our pain around; we’ve simply shoved it out of sight (we think), where it waits to leap to the surface again at the first opportunity. We seem uncomfortable expressing any emotion beyond love, happiness, pity, or anger. Feelings like confusion, ambivalence, depression, bitterness, or anything touched by grief leave us itching for an exit. We fear that if we peek inside ourselves, a freight train of buried suffering will come roaring out of the tunnel toward us. Of course, perpetually wallowing in negative emotions doesn’t help us heal, but neither does burying the ongoing pain we feel.
Fifty years ago, James Baldwin wrote in his essay “The Uses of the Blues,”
There is something monstrous about never having been hurt, never having been made to bleed, never having lost anything, never having gained anything because life is beautiful, and in order to keep it beautiful you’re going to stay just the way you are; you’re not going to test your theory against all the possibilities outside. America is something like that. The failure on our part to accept the reality of pain, of anguish, of ambiguity, of death has turned us into a very peculiar and sometimes monstrous people…You can’t know anything about life and suppose you can get through it clean. The most monstrous people are those who think they are going to.
We risk becoming that monstrous, tragic people. Because the only thing more monstrous than never having experienced pain and suffering is pretending that you’ve never experienced it. That pretense not only cuts you off from the pain of others, it renders you useless in a human sense because it cuts you off rom yourself.
Every advance I’ve experienced in my life happened because I listened to something I didn’t want to hear. We have to break ourselves open, individually and collectively, to challenge the stories we tell ourselves about our virtue and selflessness. That doesn’t mean we don’t have those qualities; it means that as humans and as a human culture we have other qualities, other histories as well.
No one gets a pass here. Being a Black man comes with its share of pain, but it hasn’t made me immune from dishing out pain too. Being an avowed feminist since my teenage years doesn’t mean I’ve always behaved like one or called out others for their sexism. I’ve had to learn to listen to expressions of pain that women suffer; I’ve had to see my participation—active and passive—in causing that pain; I’ve had to understand how my attitudes and actions grew from my own flaws; I’ve had to grieve for parts of myself and for what women undergo. I’ve had to change. I’ve had to act differently.
In particular, I’ve had to accept that I have privileges that others don’t, and that those privileges have made my life easier, whether I wanted them to or not. I’ve had to figure out—and am still very much figuring out—what to do about that.
The attitude shift I’m talking about was expressed perfectly in a comment I saw recently by Kelly Barnhill, an educator and an author of children’s books:
“When I talk to my kids about privilege, this is the lesson that I give them (at this point, all three of them can likely recite this word for word), “When someone points out your privilege to you – and believe me, this is going to happen a lot – there is only one proper, appropriate response: you say, ‘Thank you. Thank you so much.’ Because that person has just opened your eyes to a thing that had been hidden from you. That person trusted you enough to believe that you were a good and compassionate person and would understand. That person just opened a door for you to allow you to be a more complete member of the human family. That person just did you the hugest favor ever. Don’t blow it.”
To become better people, a better community, we need each other, especially those “others” who aren’t like us. We need the help their perspectives can give us. We all need somebody to call us on our shit. Because it feels to me that we’re at the precipice, and we can’t afford to blow it.