I’ve been pondering the way our personal narratives and sense of identity shape our actions and our inactions. Most of us have an idea in our heads and hearts of who we are, and we reject those things don’t mesh with our story. Those errors or blips are mere anomalies – they aren’t who we are. But, when we continue making the same choices, knowing they may greatly harm other people (elsewhere on the globe), does that mean perhaps our picture, this farcical construct, is wrong? That we should be questioning it?
I keep seeing, “I’m/s/he’s a good person, who are you to question me/her/him?!” Who am I – who are we – not to? As adults, we must always question. We must always hold people and corporations responsible when their actions have terrible consequences. But so often we don’t. We teach our children consequences, but then, as adults, they see the rich, the powerful, and other authority figures walking away unscathed from major breaches of ethics. And we’re okay with it. Because, by and large, we want everything to be okay. We want to think that these rich and powerful people are like us – mostly doing the right thing, because they’re really not actively doing the wrong thing.
Really, we are all so focused on finding our individual paths and our individual peace, that we forget to take a step back and see the larger picture. Is your peace truly peace, if it causes oppression elsewhere?
I think this is obsession with “I’m good!” is a waste of time. I don’t think it really matters what we believe or think about ourselves, or how we think our moralities measure up in the face of the crisis presenting itself right now.
As I pondered all of this, a story from my own past popped into my head. Perhaps it’s unrelated, but perhaps not. When I was in the 3rd grade, one of my classmates was diagnosed with cancer. During her treatment, she lost her hair and began wearing a wig to class. Children are cruel, so they made fun of her wig and her hair, in the classroom and on the playground.
One day, a few boys were more relentless than usual. They approached this girl and ripped the wig off her head and threw it on the ground. I witnessed this, told the boys off, retrieved the girl’s wig and returned it to her, and told the monitors.
That is one piece of the story. But it’s the version my mother heard from my teachers. She, bursting with pride at her daughter’s goodness, immediately arranged a play date with the girl’s family, all to my dismay. I complained and told her I didn’t want to go. I think, believing as she did that her daughter was a ‘good girl’, she thought my reticence was because I was modest. I didn’t want to be seen as a hero for doing what was right.
But that couldn’t be further from the truth. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her my real reason. I didn’t want to go because I *hated* that girl. Before she lost her hair, before she was diagnosed with cancer, I had hated her. She was the bully I had told my mom about on all those occasions, the one who mocked my shabby clothes, my worn boots, and our old run-down car. She always made me feel just how poor I was.
And I hated her for it.
Instead, I told my mom that what I did wasn’t special, while I wrestled with an even more powerful emotion: guilt. And shame. See, when the boys ripped the little girl’s wig off, I laughed. I felt like this girl deserved all this meanness for all the meanness she had poured on me. But, then… Then I saw her face. Through all the previous torments, she’d managed to keep a stony countenance. But this time, I couldn’t unsee her expression as she dissolved into tears. I recognized an unspeakable anguish as she tried to cover her bald head, with its patches of wisps of hair, from our sight. I knew what it felt like to feel that shame for something you couldn’t change. That’s when I turned on the boys. I didn’t do it because I was good, or because I recognized instantly that what they (what we) were doing was wrong. I did it because I was ashamed. I was racked with guilt. And I felt like a huge hypocrite for doing it (although, at the time, I didn’t know that was the word for how I felt – I just remember the feeling as the boys looked at me in shock, and I steeled myself against their valid accusations of “You thought it was funny, too!” Once I turned on them, I was committed).
I never wanted to feel that feeling again (although, I would, many more times) – that I had stood by and watched and taken part in the debasing and humiliation of another human being. No matter how deserving I thought they were, I never wanted to intentionally make someone feel wretched again.
We had the play date. It was incredibly awkward, and the girl, to her credit, was more friendly than she had previously been. She did make fun of my clothes and pointed out that she doubted I had as many brand new toys as her, and, I bit my lip and said she was right. My mom, after all, had told me to be nice. After what felt like forever, my mom finally let me leave.
The point of this story isn’t that I feel like I’m a good person for holding myself accountable, or that I’m better or different than anyone else – I don’t believe I am.
It’s that I don’t think it matters what we think about ourselves when it comes to where we place ourselves on the scale of morality. The point is that we continually seek out and do good. That we don’t rest on the laurels of our past accomplishments. We must always hold ourselves – and others – accountable. We can never simply accept that our or anyone else’s goodness is something we can take for granted. How can we be good, if we are silent in the face of oppression? Or worse, when we make fun of or belittle the people who are trying to find a way to fight oppression? How can we, making excuses for our inaction, hold onto that frail sense of goodness, if we don’t demand better?
I don’t think we can. We have to hold onto our narratives, since they define us and help guide us through the murky waters of this life, but we must understand that our stories and the stories of others are nothing without the action to give them substance. We are both our actions and inactions. And if we let our convictions falter, then it is our responsibility to correct them as soon as we can.
The point isn’t to beat ourselves up for our faults (although, that is what I used to do), the point is to recognize we will make mistakes, but demand that we learn from those mistakes, and not excuse them. We have made too many excuses for ourselves, in order to make ourselves more comfortable. We’ve diminished ourselves and our powers to demand justice for the oppressed, food for the hungry, and water for the thirsty.
We’ve accepted too many narratives as truth, so that we don’t know that we deserve better. But the world needs us to do better. The world needs us to *be* better. Our bombs are dropping on the heads of Yemeni children. We are sponsoring and supporting multiple terrorist factions in the Middle East and continuing to perpetuate violence in the Middle East, in what some scholars call an intentional escalation in order wipe out the Middle East. Our corporations are polluting the lakes and waters of the U.S., India, China, South America, and, heavens, the world.
But we, making ourselves small, say, “What can I do? I am just one person!”
What can’t we do, when we speak with one voice? What can’t we do, when we remember that we are a people, of many races, religions, creeds, origins, and skin colors? Anything is possible, so long as we believe in the possibility.
After all, didn’t our de facto motto used to be, “e pluribus unum“?
We cannot let our power be taken away, we cannot let our voices be taken away, and we cannot give away our strength by continuing to say, “What can I possibly do?” We have the ability to stand with our brothers and sisters in their time of need. It doesn’t matter if we feel like they deserve it. Who are we to decide, after all, who is deserving and who is not?
We must demand more of ourselves and our politicians. We must stop idealizing and idolizing those who are supposed to represent the people. That means talking to your kids and explaining why it’s so important to take action. Why do you make the purchasing choices you do? Why do you support local businesses, rather than businesses that spend millions to defeat education, public health, and environmental legislation? As the world falls apart, as we continue to sponsor coups and wars in other regions for our own profit, as the climate worsens such that peoples’s lives and their children’s lives will be the worse for it, your children will remember what you did. Not what you said, not what you tried to do, but what you did and how you lived.
And that will be the story they tell their children. Your story, our story, the story we leave for generations to come – that ours is a narrative we write every day. We are the heroes and the villains of our own stories. We are the masters of our fate. We are the captains of our souls. And, to mix poetry references,
“The air for the wing of the sparrow
The bush for the robin and wren;
But always the path that is narrow
– and straight – for the children of men.”
It is a daily effort, this being good. Too many excuses, and we lose sight of the person (and, together) the people we used to (and should still) be.