Sunday, April 8, 2012

On growing up

In thinking about some of the comments to my post last night asking why are so many liberals uncomfortable with success, I was reminded of an article by Tim Wise that I found a few years ago.

He starts off saying that when he gives talks on college campuses, he often gets this question from students: "What's the point? Can you really make a difference? Why keep fighting against such incredible odds?"

He then points to a letter he received from Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1988 while he was organizing an anti-arpatheid group at Tulane University.

As if knowing that those of us involved in the battle at Tulane were doubting our relevance (since even if we forced divestment would things really change in South Africa?), he offered an obvious yet profound rationale for the work of any freedom fighter: "You do not do the things you do because others will necessarily join you in the doing of them, nor because they will ultimately prove successful. You do the things you do because the things you are doing are right."

It really begs the question of why we join the struggle in the first place. What is our bottom line? Are we in it only to "win," or because its simply the right thing to do? If we're only in it to win, we're going to get disappointed. And then what? Do we quit...or wrap ourselves in cynicism? The latter is certainly evident in many on the left.

But then Wise goes on to talk about why white liberals are more prone to that kind of reaction.

Of course, that there is redemption in struggle, and that victory is only one reason for why one fights in this world, only seems to come as a surprise, or rather, as a source of discomfort to white folks. Invariably, it seems it is we in the white community who obsess over our own efficacy, and fail to recognize the value of commitment, irrespective of outcome. People of color, on the other hand, never having been burdened with the illusion that the world was their oyster, and thus, anything they touched could and should turn to gold, usually take a more reserved, and I would say healthier view of the world and the prospects for change. They know (as indeed they must) that the thing being fought for, at least if it's worth having, will require more than a part-time effort, and will not likely come in the lifetimes of those presently fighting for it. And it is that knowledge which allows a strength and resolve few members of the dominant majority will ever, can ever, know.

This is not, and please take note of it, to sentimentalize suffering or the strength often borne of it. In fact, this last statement should be taken less as a comment about the strength of persons of color, than as an observation about the weakness of those without it. For it is true, at least in my experience, that whites, having been largely convinced of our ability, indeed entitlement, to affect the world around us and mold it to our liking, are very much like children when we discover that at least for some things -- like fundamentally altering the system of privilege and domination that first invested us with such optimism -- it will take more than good intentions, determined will, and that old stand-by, to which we euphemistically refer as "elbow grease."...

This isn't to say it's impossible to inspire young whites to fight for justice, nor to stick it out. It's just a bit more of a challenge sometimes, for it requires that the person be open to an entirely different way of thinking about the world and their place in it: a challenge, but not undoable, as any glimpse at the long list -- however much longer it should be -- of whites who have committed their lives to equity and peace will attest. And so, I explain, there is something to be said for confronting the inevitable choice one must make in this life, between collaborating with or resisting injustice, and choosing the latter. There is something to be said for knowing you did all you could to stop a war, eliminate racism, or improve your community for the good of all. There is something to be said for a good night's sleep, and the ability to wake in the morning, look in the mirror, and never doubt that if you died before lunch, you would have lived a life of integrity.

When he referred to us being like children in the second paragraph above, I was reminded of something President Obama said in his inaugural address.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less.

It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.

Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things -- some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor -- who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom...

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

This is the journey we continue today.

What I think both of these men are saying is that its time to give up our childish personal illusions of grandeur and just grow up. In some ways its the same message we hear from Reinhold Niebuhr - that we have to give up our illusions of the world as we want it to be and start dealing with the world as it is. That means losing alot and winning some...but always keeping our eyes on the North Star.


  1. Wow!~! Speechless with the truth expressed here..will be rereading and thinking. Thank you so much.

  2. I add my thanks to you & Tim Wise for helping me understand something that has confused me over and over. Just yesterday at an OFA organizing meeting, a couple of white members immediately wanted to talk about their "disappointment" with the President. I hear this over and over! Had I had this post at the time I would have approached my response differently.

    This post is a gift to me.