me and what matters

There is no good balance between trying not to “center yourself” in issues that are not about you, and acknowledging that everyone has to deal with racism and cultural conflict on an intensely personal level. This is part of my story.

I grew up reading books on leadership, beginning at the age of nine to take on every “office” I could, believing my role in life was to make things happen and to change the world. My college experience deepened this view of myself as I took on more and more stuff: a classic big fish in a small pond.

When I left Tennessee for a volunteer position in upstate New York, I thought it was the next step in changing the world, the next place to go be really good at things. And while I certainly wasn’t bad at things, I constantly worried that I wasn’t really earning my keep. I never fixed the East Side of Syracuse or started some kind of revival at SU, and it seemed at the time like I had done nothing. Every week someone at church would tell me how they were energized and challenged by my presence there, and every week I would go home and ask God why he wasn’t “using” me.

I decided to go to seminary partly because it was time to have A Career. I would become a beloved, influential writer and teacher; people would look to me for leadership and advice. Then I actually started the work of grad school, and nearly every day
felt newly confusing, often discouraging. When I failed to get in to a Ph.D. program, I had to finally wonder whether any of this had been worth it.

I can list for you fifty ways that I have grown in these years, but I still struggle to accept that the measure of success, and even of my worth as a person, is not only in quantifiable achievements or the world, changed. I am more likely to believe that I must have taken some wrong turn, or not tried hard enough, because it is the destiny of people like me to Do Great Things but I—I have only twiddled around earning a master’s degree.

It is no exaggeration to say that all of this time I have felt oppressed and often angry about the lack of clarity and purpose I have felt in my life. And much of this time, I have heard God saying to just be here, to let myself feel small and bewildered. It is enough to keep trying to pray, to try to love, to not know.

It is enough to be humble.

Still I fought for the need to achieve things. Today, in fact, I fight for it; I think I will find significance in becoming An Author, I pin my self-respect to my Hustle, and I write and write but nothing is ever good enough because it is not The Best.

It has only begun to dawn on me that true humility—contentment in doing my little part—is not only enough for a time. It is the foundation of Doing Great Things.

Excruciating honesty is one of the truest signs of humility and so I will tell you: I have been burdened by how to write about Black Lives Matter. Or so I have told myself. Deeper down, I have believed that I could Steward my Privilege and Make a Contribution by writing the perfect piece, the essay that would educate without condescending, take a stand without offending, succinctly communicate the nuances of the cultural img_20160716_102317368.jpgconflict at hand and also inspire both sides to come together under the universal hope we share for safer communities and a more loving world. This would be the essay that would cut through the noise.

I’ve tried to write this essay many, many times in my mind and a couple of times on paper. I’ve tried to balance everything I’ve learned about oppression, privilege, and being an ally with sympathy for those who don’t have a graduate education in the humanities: trying to explain each side of myself to the other. And each time, the essay ends up with some conclusion along these lines: I guess the best I, or anyone, can do is to keep listening, being honest, asking for forgiveness, speaking up with imperfect words, and praying we’ll all have the courage to set aside defensiveness and seek one another’s good.

Then I start over on the essay, because I so much want to come to a different conclusion. I don’t want these things to be all I can do. I want to Fix Racism and Classism, I want to go viral, I want to solve a problem or at least lead a nonprofit that makes me feel like I’m solving a problem. I am the target audience for all those quotes you see: What will you tell your grandchildren you did about racism??!! I don’t really want to tell them I stayed in tough conversations and wrote some letters to my police commissioner and cultivated peace in my own heart.

It occurs to me that this need to Tackle Problems and Accomplish Change seems like a self-evident, universal human, but only because it is such a white lady approach to the world. In other cultures, people can be sad without compiling action items. They can believe in change before statistical evidence for it exists. Groups can work together to do things without everyone demanding credit for the group’s accomplishment.

The world may someday need my overachieving habits and even my Extraordinary Writing Ability, but today is not that day. Today is the day I listen and learn and try to support the people who are fighting for their own lives. Today I add one medium-sized voice to the insistent chorus: Black Lives Matter. The best I can do is to follow so others can lead; to be patient so others have space to be angry; to ask my own family and friends to have courage, to understand. But I cannot ask them to set aside their defenses unless have taken my own ego out of the equation.

Maybe once I’ve done that, it won’t matter whether one side thinks I’m a dupe for joining the liberals or the other side polices my language. I’ll be able to learn and ask forgiveness even from those who seem unfairly accusatory. My self-worth won’t depend on whether I fix anything. And I won’t mind writing my little, non-viral pieces, because this is how I know to be faithful, this is how I know I become less fearful, because honesty, over and over, is where we will eventually recognize ourselves and one another as agents of a difficult, unthrilling, humble peace.

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1 Comment

  1. emmanuelcbc

     /  July 16, 2016

    There is really only one thing that God asks of you, “Be faithful in what God has set before you.” Our true measure, and for which I am certain will be the clarion call for you some day, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have done all that I asked.”


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