I’ve recently been confronted with my own moral obligation to the betterment of the world, and not in an inspiring or optimistic way… rather, I’ve felt the torment of overwhelm, the pressure of responsibility, the pain of blame, and the sting of self-importance.
I’ve been told that this blog has the potential to be a platform for change, that not everything has to be so shortsighted or imbued with self-centeredness. But I wonder if I have the capacity to get a point across without personal storytelling; moreover, I wonder if generalizations have the capacity to inspire or evoke action. But finally, I wonder if anything any one person says can be unbiased or selfless.
On the contrary, I think the very nature of what makes a statement or a story important or interesting, let alone inspiring, is the personal, human element; because what truth can come of speaking about something you know nothing of? Of something you haven’t experienced…after all, you write what you know, right?
I want to be that change I hope to see in the world. I want to inspire. I want to be optimistic and eloquent. I want to be worthy of recognizing and spreading truth. I want to be selfless (there’s that word again). But I’ll admit something… I don’t know how to do any of that. Also, I especially don’t know how to attempt any of that without sounding presumptuous and arrogant. But for some godforsaken reason I feel compelled to try anyways…
Standing at a Pittsburgh bus-stop, overlooking a pristine and austere Brooks Brother’s storefront bordered by poverty, I’m reminded of the paradox that is this city. The “Burgh” was built on the backs of blue-collared folks- steelworkers, coalminers, Yinzers, immigrants; and yet its legacy is also that of affluence- of monopolies, of industry moguls, and of prestigious educational institutions. Pittsburgh is the literal confluence of different ethnic backgrounds, traditions, social classes, and rivers.
Today, in the reflections of the stuffy, tailored, Brooks Brother’s window display before me, a dirty, desperate, and contradictory scene of city life unfolds: one of drudgery, one of imbalance, one of struggle; and the role I play in this scene is not what I would’ve hoped it would be.
I stand casually against a rail, waiting for the bus- attempting to weave myself modestly into the fabric of daily life here. Behind me, a woman of color sprawls on the sidewalk against a building. Her face is covered in some kind of paint or substance that makes her face a grayish color. She is obese and her stomach peeks out below her Pittsburgh Pirates T-shirt. She is talking to herself and shouting at passersby in a thick Yinzer accent. She is seemingly disturbed. She is the embodiment of “other” in my current reality.
The woman may be inebriated, she may be mentally ill, she may be homeless; and yet, I am the one lost in a delusion because I’m choosing to ignore her and go about my day as if she doesn’t exist- obviously aware of her presence and the predicament of the present moment in which we find ourselves. Yes, I will assert that this moment is our predicament, despite my efforts to believe otherwise.
I watch as she attempts to interact with people at the bus-stop. I watch as some walk past her casually, including a policeman, glancing at her and continuing on without concern. I rationalize my own ignorance with that of others.
If you look up the word ignorant you’ll be supplied with the lie that it is lacking in knowledge; uninformed; unaware. But I don’t buy that, because it’s not that I or anyone else is unaware of her. We are choosing to ignore what is plainly in front of us, actively trying to make herself known.
The bus arrives and, just as it reaches the curb, the woman turns to her hands and knees, attempting and failing to stand up. She voices her need for assistance. I’m faced with a slew of questions… Do I help her? Will I miss my bus? Is this my white guilt speaking? Does that even matter? What is right? Which parts of this situation are even real?
I head for the bus. Out of the corner of my eye I see another woman of color helping the woman to her feet. I find a seat. I am drowning in the knowledge of what I could’ve done, but didn’t.
Now, tucked away in the safety, familiarity, and whiteness of a Denver coffee shop- away from the possibility of uncomfortable or challenging situations- I write this; and I’m trying to figure out why I write this…
When I began writing this, it might have been to unload some of my shame and guilt on you, the reader. It might have been to buttress my own feelings of failure. It may have been a belated attempt at making things “right” and proving to myself and others that I’m “nice” for thinking about it. But none of these things help the woman. My guilt, my frustration, my inward struggle and questioning is all useless- it has no function.
So why then do I write this? Perhaps I write this as a means of confronting something that is wrong; as a way of confessing that I am part of a problem.
Hugh Prather writes that:
Confession is often an avoidance of change. If I confess it, I don’t have to accept the responsibility of changing it: “I confess. It is beyond my control.” And it shifts the burden: “You have heard it, now what are you going to do about it?”
But I won’t put that on you, dear reader. I’ll assume the responsibility.
I can’t go back in time and help the woman up from the ground. I can’t acknowledge her humanity by looking at her in that moment, by letting her know I see her and that she matters, by realizing that her and I are the same. I can’t right my wrongs by inviting others into action or requesting a pardon, or trying to prove something after the fact. I can’t even rationalize that if I had done those things that all would be alright.
But what I can do is make myself a promise to pay attention. To become aware of the way I carry myself through this life: the way I engage, the things I see, the choices I make, the things I do or don’t do. I can make a promise to do the work by working on myself in every moment, by acknowledging that the work is never complete; but also by understanding that the work isn’t always some grand revolution- and often it won’t be.
More times than not, the work will be not letting my guilt paralyze me, not believing a story of ignorance, not letting my ego take credit for good choices or rationalize bad ones. I write this as the work in this moment. I press publish and then I continue with the work however it manifests today. This is all there is.