I am an introvert with good social skills. That I’ve said this to my friends at least 80 times over the years may cause them to doubt the latter part of the statement, but left to my own devices, I’m quiet, introspective and shy. Part of it is just my nature, but much of it comes from growing up being afraid to be who I was in the world.
As a kid in the 1950s and 60s, I didn’t exactly have words for liking girls more than boys, but I knew I was different than my friends. When I was in my early 20s and finally able to name that I was a lesbian, I still saw few people who looked like me. It made for a murky path to the future. I simply couldn’t see a rich, acceptable life ahead of me and this added fear and insecurity to my already reserved nature. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I learned the value of speaking up. I discovered then that the longer I remained locked in my self-created safe room, the more isolated I felt, and the less likely I was to ever want to engage.
My job as a human is to move toward other people,
not away from them.
Once I mustered the courage to talk in class, I discovered one of the most important things I ever learned in my life: Many people feel like I do. We’re scared and uncomfortable and we feel unacceptable in the world. The next lesson was even better than that one: If I was open and I told the truth with an open heart, people loved me and embraced me. Maybe I was just lucky, but it made an impression, and it has served as a reminder since then to do the same for others. All of this makes me think about what happened in Charlottesville recently and of the growing number of people who find it acceptable to hate those who are not like them.
I have been blessed in many ways in my life, and my career in community college education serves as a shining example of that good fortune. From the beginning, I worked with students and staff from countless cultures and backgrounds and a gillion different experiences and challenges. These opportunities opened the world for me. I learned about personal histories, family stories, and individual tests and trials. Even growing up as a lesbian, I was still a white, privileged, middle-class girl. The chance to work in such a rich environment was a huge gift. It broadened my view, increased my ability to see past my own experience, reminded me daily that I am only one of many, and made me proud to live in a country that, at that time, lived up to the history it touted.
Today, I’m scared—of some of my fellow citizens and of the current leadership of this country. The value of what we have here is in our diversity, in our mix of experiences, in our ability to connect, love, and embrace. In the last few months, when hatred and bigotry have somehow found a place to thrive, I feel myself closing up, moving back to that long-ago familiar place inside myself. And yet I know from my own experience that fear will not help to brighten the road ahead of me. It will only highlight the potential peril and keep me shuddering along the edges, cautious about everything I encounter.
In what I figure is no coincidence, at a back-to-school meeting last week, two different people exhorted the audience to move past our fears. All the good stuff is on the other side of fear, they said, and that notion has been resonating with me all weekend. Our fear of each other, of lives and experiences different from our own, will keep us locked in such tiny boxes that we will soon be suffocated by sameness.
When I was 19 and taking my first wobbly steps out into the world as an out lesbian, I was met with openness by those who had gone before me. I’m sure they had felt their own trepidation, but from my vantage point it looked like courage and love. Weeks like these remind me that I cannot hide in the comfort of my tiny, personal world, that my job as a human is to move toward other people, not away from them. There are no requirements for what our courage looks like now, only that we have it, and that we offer it willingly to others.