There’s a quote by Reverend Dave Barnhart that’s gone around Facebook lately in conversations about the continuing battle over reproductive health and the basic rights of humans to have control of their own bodies, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. This is a slightly edited version.
“’The unborn’ are a convenient group of people to advocate for. They never make demands of you; they are morally uncomplicated…they don’t resent your condescension or complain that you are not politically correct…they don’t ask you to question patriarchy…they don’t need money, education, or childcare…they don’t bring all that racial, cultural, and religious baggage you dislike…they allow you to feel good about yourself without any work at creating and maintaining relationships…and when they are born, you can forget about them because they cease to be unborn. You can love the unborn and advocate for them without substantially challenging your own wealth, power, and privilege, without reimagining social structures, apologizing, or making reparations to anyone.”
I think this statement is true and also goes beyond the unborn.
A few days ago, I had a very long-overdue dental check-up. The CTA trains all stopped running at Sheridan, so I walked thirty-five minutes to get to the office. The CTA trains and buses have been halting service a lot these past weeks as Chicago, like so many other places, has had protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd.
After my cleaning was done, I called a Lyft and stood on the sidewalk…thankfully a long sidewalk with plenty of ways to keep six feet apart from others…and waited.
And I saw an entire march pass by. In the front were police officers on bicycles. In the back were a row of officers on foot and twenty or so cars. In the middle was a mile and a half, two mile long line of people. Almost all of them looked under thirty-five. The vast majority wore masks. They held up every Black Lives Matter sign under the sun.
I stood on the sidewalk giving them a raised fist.
There’s two things here.
First, I’ve been having deep conversations with people the past week about what’s happening in America now. And since 2014, I’ve been a part of protests, rallies, and marches that blocked the streets and had uncertain, confrontational endings. For BLM, women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, in support of federal actions, the March For Our Lives in 2018 in Washington. I love being one small part using my body and voice to support something I believe in. And the only reason I didn’t get off the sidewalk and join in was that after two and a half months, I also looked at that crowd and had the same thought come into the back of my mind. “Is COVID spreading here? And if it is, would I get sick or get someone else sick? Especially since I was just around a whole bunch of strangers?”
No one I’ve talked to about it disagreed with me. And I’ve been sending money to Chicago bond organizations and Black Lives Matter for the past week. But in all my writing, I need to be honest. I felt a bit like a coward.
So I’m going to work on changing that. Most of my life in Chicago has been about me putting myself in uncomfortable places. Even if I don’t end up on the streets this time, I’m going to make sure I do what I can.
Second, I know people who were fed up from the start by Black Lives Matter. Who thought Colin Kaepernick should never have spoken up. Who thought peaceful protests were wrong. Who wish all of this would go away…although they had nothing to say about the other set of protests this year when people with guns rallied in state capitals against COVID restrictions and police did nothing. And who have shown more comfort and concern for the police officers, the ones who have militarized gear and weaponry, than any protestors who were hurt or killed.
For me, that attitude is like what Reverend Barnhart says about caring for the unborn. It’s a show of compassion that allows a person to not challenge themselves.
While the people, including great friends of mine, who are out on the streets are risking something more than ever. Risking getting sick. Risking getting hurt.
It’s a lesson I learned shamefully late in my life but I’m glad I learned it.
Caring hurts on every possible level you can care about something or someone from the moment you make that commitment.
If you have deep, great friendships, if you have a true and strong love for another person, to care means to feel their pain alongside them, and to know that what you have could end in heartbreak.
If you have something in your life that’s a vocation which means everything to you, it’s going to involve the pain and sweat of hard work and a lot of failures and efforts that might never be seen by anyone but you.
If you’re part of a social movement that wants to change things in a city, in a state, in a nation, in a world, even within your block or on a school, there’s going to be personality clashes, the frantic tedium of organizing and making plans, the weariness of arguing with people who oppose you, setbacks, reversals, sometimes watching things slip away while you try to stop them and can do nothing.
You realize you all by yourself can’t change the world…you can’t will things into existence…you can’t keep a relationship that’s dead together…you can’t do these things simply because you care.
It’s easy not to care.
It’s easy to hate, of course. Hate is something that doesn’t require you to think.
But not caring is different from hating.
It’s easy to shrug off concerns and write a check. And plenty of people don’t even write a check!
It’s also easy to care about something sincerely and then assume that anyone who doesn’t share the same belief, or is earnest about something else for different reasons, is someone not worth caring about. Easy to take whatever goodness and ideals you stand for and ignore or twist them.
And one of the lessons I’ve had to learn is that I can’t hate in the end. I can argue with people, and I will (I’m getting better at standing on matters of principle too), but when I really think about it, it’s hard on an intellectual level to begrudge people who choose not to care. Why would you open yourself up to being hurt, more and more?
But we aren’t living in a world driven by intellect. We live in a world where our very existence itself is driven by emotion, by desire, by beliefs, where facts can and hopefully, usually should be the basis for such emotions and desires and beliefs, but not always.
And I like that it’s “not always.” We need to let our emotions take the front seat now and then, and to imagine. It’s what makes us truly alive.
Because as soon we imagine something, be it a work of art we want to develop or an idea for a better world, or we let our emotions out and talk to the person who becomes our best friend or our deepest romantic love, we’re going to care. And it’s going to hurt.
And yet, we still do.
I use art to make sense of the world.
Recently, I’ve been reading books by amazing writers like Roxane Gay so I can further understand this moment we’re in.
And I’ve been watching stories. Stories about lots of things. About people who grow into something beautiful together but come apart because they can’t agree on how people should care. People who push themselves to every limit imaginable and are ready to die for the sake of caring about others, even those who oppose or betray them. People who grow increasingly cruel and destructive, pushing everyone in their lives who get close to them away, and are responsible for so much death and near death.
And these stories have such beautifully happy endings. Endings with what Gay would describe as “the smooth surfaces of idyll.”
Real life doesn’t guarantee happy endings the way writers can. That’s no surprise. And I never expect them to happen.
But what I do know, and I know writing this I am going to sound corny, is that while caring about something isn’t enough, it’s always at the beginning. The first time you make yourself vulnerable, or sign up for a cause, or join a crowd speaking out, and every other time, knowing you will probably get hurt and doing it anyway…
Over time, that can lead to a happy ending. Maybe for yourself. Maybe for others in a future you don’t live to see.
Only happens when you care.
See you out there.