Most of my adult life people have treated me as if I am particularly intelligent. Some have openly called me intellectual. My thought was usually that they were mistaken, that I am well read and speak well. When I take a shower and dress in a suit I present pretty well. I did not receive those affirmations as a youth – so deep down inside I do not believe the praise given. For years I knew in my gut that I did not deserve to wear that suit. My life was like a charade.
I was personally blessed, or cursed, with a natural curiosity and a fondness for reading. I can attest to the axiom of blissfully ignorant. I am neither.
Intellectual or just well read – I see the world a little differently than most of my peers. My father gave me a personality of direct confrontation, of resolve, of forcefulness. He also told me a number of times, beginning at about age 3, that my mouth gets me in more trouble. He invested three years teaching me to walk and talk and seventeen years trying to get me to sit down and shut up.
Add the seasoning of quick wit and sense of humor expressed often as sarcasm. Then throw in a social conscience. Turn on the blender.
All of that adds up to a difficult person who sees the world differently and does not know when to shut up. Consequently, I have regular life conflicts. Conflicts with others and conflicts within self. On an intellectual level I am confident that I have correctly evaluated whatever the situation calls for – but on a gut emotional level the conflict with others strikes deep into my soul, gaining traction on the road of uncertain emotions. It is Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’. Do I speak out when I see injustice, or do I remain quiet?
Many times I have heard others say, “That is not a hill I want to die on.” or “We have to be careful which battles we fight.” and more succinctly, “Pick your battles.” My threshold for battle seems to be very low. I seem to be quick to take up a cause. My opinion of others who walk away from clear injustice drops, and I am inclined to disregard and lose respect for those who see the injustice but are not willing to stand up.
Social injustice is an academic term. Having a social conscience is an emotional term. My social conscience is a powerful force, driving me mad with fear and loathing for perpetrators of social injustice. I have been called courageous and I have been called a fool. It seems the outcome dictates the label. Courage comes from success, fool comes with failure.
My childhood contributed directly to my social conscience. All of us interpret life through the lens of our life experience. As a child I witnessed extreme poverty and brutal parenting by close relatives. Thomas Alva Edison Elementary, in St. Joseph, Missouri, sat on a border between the impoverished and the wealthy. The economic strata of my childhood might fall somewhere around upper-lower class. I could see social justice in two directions – up and down.
Edison School, in the 1950’s, delineated success based on family economic status. There were poor children who were great athletes but did not have proper court shoes so they did not participate in school basketball. They used their athletic skills to chuck rocks at cars. I learned to resent those basketball players who were on the team only because their family had means. Clearly, as an old man reflecting back, I can see my disdain was misdirected. This is but an example of my experience in elementary school.
While my economic status was upper-lower class, many of my cousins were scraping the bottom. People I loved and cared about lived in homes of extreme alcohol abuse, of poor emotional and physical nutrition, a world of darkness, tucked away from the eyes of justice. The darkness was both metaphorical and literal.
The metaphorical cloud of darkness manifested in complete lack of hope, of a sense that each of them belonged where they were, an acceptance that they were not worthy of a better life, creating a disrupted human life of anger and hate and bitterness.
I remember visiting a home that was literally dark inside. We walked in on a late sunlit day to a world of darkness. Hope was gone. There was no reason to clean the house. The windows were dark with the stains of tar and nicotine. The aroma of alcohol and tobacco attacked the nostrils. Light bulbs were scarce. Too many children of an unplanned family were controlled with a heavy hand. Even at an early age I could see the darkness both literally and metaphorically. (At that time I did not know the word metaphor – but I recognized the condition). Many years later I would walk into a dark tavern and recognize the odor of dark lives lost.
My own anger welled. Resentment about the injustice of life grew and festered.
Nature and nurture colluded to create in me a powerful empathy for others – and particularly for those less fortunate. My sense of injustice is not just an anthropological academic exercise – my social conscience is woven into the fabric of my being. I am unable to look the other way, to just keep on walking, to concern myself only with myself.
I fight the fights that others avoid. When the cruelty of life asks for volunteers to challenge it in the ring, I raise my hand. I have lost many fights – but every time cruelty landed a blow I countered with my own. I have won a few rounds and lost many more – but I continue to step into the ring. Some say I am a fool. They have apparently not experienced the thrill and jubilation at winning a hard fought round with injustice. They say, “Yeah, but look at your scars. Are they worth it?” Absolutely.
I do not mean to praise myself – for most people I know think I am wrong – not that my cause was wrong – but that my fierce methods were uncalled for. I get that. I have know for many years that my willingness to take up a cause can cause me trouble.
So where is the front line of this battle? When do we strike and when do we walk away? I know the answer – but in my zeal for justice I sometimes cross the line.
When we put our cause at the top of the list, we lose. Meaning, when our cause becomes more important than love and kindness, when our cause justifies hate and resentment – the we have crossed the line. This is something I know intellectually – but the fabric of my being pulses with a deep sense of the injustice of a cruel world.
I am compelled to act. Some might say that I have a definitive medical condition, defined in psychiatric journals. That may be the case. If offered a pill to stifle my desire and willingness to engage the cruelty of the world – I would not take it.
I joke with others that I am let out of the house on the days when I have been compliant and took my meds. People who know me well only wish that were true.