I recently had this exchange with my partner, Susan:
When I visited property outside of Savannah, I couldn't help but think of the slaves that had lived there when it was a plantation. There are a few preserved slave cabins in the area and I vacillated between thinking how beautiful the thick woods were and how impossible it would have been to escape from them. I'd like to think I would have been like the Grimke sisters [Angelina and Sarah, who spoke against slavery in the 1830s, after having witnessed its horrors first hand growing up in South Carolina] and disturbed by slavery, but is it more likely I'd have been a product of the times and an obedient little girl?
While it’s almost impossible not to speculate, it’s also an impossible question to answer: essentially, how would you respond in a challenging situation that you’ve never faced? Of course, we get glimpses of our courage and our moral strength from time to time, when we are faced with tough moments. But it’s hard to accurately extrapolate from what happened in one moment to how you’d respond in another.
Guess instead of thinking on that, I should concentrate on what I can do today to make things better.
I believe there’s ore to be mined in imagining yourself in such a circumstance (in the Deep South in the first half of the 19th Century), as a thought experiment, knowing you’d be voicing a highly unpopular idea (questioning slavery). Yet even then I imagine there would be a way to initiate conversations where you could try to connect with all the players: both slaves and owners, if you could be genuinely curious about how they were handling the dynamic. While I think it would be hard to get a salve to trust a white girl and be forthcoming, I don’t think it would be impossible. Easier, perhaps, would be asking your family members and neighbors how it felt to own another human being. I’m suggesting this because I could imagine you doing that, introducing questions of morality and anguish, where perhaps the topic was being avoided—rather than pronouncing judgment or fomenting a slave rebellion.
I imagine this could have led to more decent conditions for the slaves and humane treatment (which must have happened in some cases). I appreciate that this is far short of eliminating slavery, but it would have been a positive step.
All of that said, I also resonate with “what I can do today to make things better.” I think one of the prime challenges in life is how to be a happy, joyous person, while at the same time aware of the incredible depth of misery, suffering, and inequity in the world. It’s overwhelming. Yet going around in a depressed state in recognition of that helps no one.
This is why it’s a compelling question for me, “What is my social change work?” Essentially, how am I trying to make a positive difference? My community networking, consulting, teaching, and writing are all geared toward that. I’ll never know how much impact I’m actually having, but at least I have my paddle in the water.
I’m also determined to live from my passion, so I only do work I love, and I am committed to being a loving person. So loving you is part of my social change work. Not just frosting on the cake; it is a core element of living a full life. I am a better person because I love you, you love me, and we don’t take that for granted. We work the garden of our relationship and we eat from it regularly. I intend to be ruthlessly happy with you, and all of the other things I do will be positively nurtured by that robust love.
My dialog with Susan points up that it is not simply a question of having a good model. You also need the courage to move the needle off center. When my grandmother first learned that I was quitting my job as a junior bureaucrat in Washington DC to start a commune in Missouri, she cautioned me about the folly of throwing my life away on a pipe dream. If I stepped off the treadmill for a few years I might never be able to get back on. I remember thinking at the time, "Who wants to be on a treadmill?"
Now it's 41 years later and I'm still chasing the pipe dream of community (and I still don't understand why anyone would want to be on a treadmill). Only now it's much more than a dream. It's my way of life.
To be sure, I was lucky. I stumbled onto what would become my life's work when I was 24—even if it took a few decades to sort out how to use that as platform for social change work. I don't recall thinking of myself as courageous at the time. It just seemed like an interesting experiment, and almost certainly more personally rewarding than a career as a Washington bureaucrat.
When facing a choice about rocking the boat (whether objecting to slavery in the Deep South in the 1830s or extolling the benefits of community living in the 21st Century) you have to weigh the downside (becoming a social pariah, or an object of derision and ridicule) against the peace that comes from acting on your principles (being able to sleep at night, and the possibility that you've made the world a better place). This equation is complicated by considerable uncertainty. Often, going in, you won't have a complete picture of the costs or the benefits. Sometimes, in fact, later events prove that your well-intentioned act of bravery had no good impact at all—in which case you get the dubious experience of being exposed as a fool, and judged naive and ineffective to boot.
Yet for all those pitfalls, is there anything so exhilarating and spiritually uplifting as those moments in our lives when we did find the courage to step beyond our comfort zone to speak up about something we knew in our hearts to be wrong, and wanted to make better?