When I was first in college, studying journalism and political science, I also had a job as the secretary of Sac State’s Women’s Studies Program. It was kind of the perfect combination of subjects for a young, white, lesbian to be thinking about in 1971. Regardless of what I read, or which professor was lecturing, there was an emphasis on the perpetual tension between freedom and what individuals and cultures deemed to be their own safety and security. On a personal level, if I stood in just the right place and I squinted enough, I could enjoy a modicum of each. Still, being gay frequently threw off this tenuous balance and my confidence was always shaken.
At the time, the Civil Rights Act was still new, the country was deeply involved in the Vietnam War, and gay people like me were accepted only in dark bars or within the very narrow confines of academia. Even in the latter, we were asked to wait until straight, middle-class, educated, white women had “made it” before our cause could be seen as significant. It left me feeling uneasy, discouraged, and cynical. It also weakened any confidence I might have had in “the system” ever working on my behalf, as I’d been taught back in grammar school that it would.
You can’t go through the world relying on your own adequate personal solution.
I wish I could say that all of that made me an unstoppable warrior for my people and for all people who found themselves unprotected or brutalized by the social and political set-up of our country. But my introversion kept that from happening. Instead, I gravitated toward education, where I could help individual people navigate these challenges. And overall, I suppose, I did empower my share of students to see the great stuff they had inside themselves. But I didn’t actively or politically push for freedom over some narrow view of public safety. Looking back, I realize I did exactly what one of my old women’s studies professors used to urge us not to do. Admonishing us to engage more seriously in political and social movements, she would remind us regularly, “You can’t go through the world relying on your own adequate personal solution.”
The problem with adequate personal solutions, of course, is that they’re pretty darned comfortable. We take care of our own needs, we contribute in a way that lets us feel like we’re doing something, and we remain in our own safe cocoons. The events of the last couple of weeks have reminded me of my penchant for that cocoon and for my feelings of powerlessness in the face of social and political issues that feel so much larger than I am. I am also reminded that my own comfort is a sham in the face of so many people who have none.
Since last week, I have found myself feeling exactly what I did back in college. The problems seem too big for me to navigate, and my own cynicism leaves me feeling like there is nothing I can do that will really help anyway. It’s how most of us find our ways to those adequate personal solutions in the first place. Our fear keeps us from being vulnerable enough to say that we don’t know what to do beyond our own front yards. And, if you’re like me, you want to do “the right thing.” I find myself fearing my own miss-steps and seeking the way to contribute in the perfect way. You’d think that at my age I’d realize that seeking the perfect way to help is really the best route to doing nothing at all.
So, I’m listening and I’m trying to connect with the people in my life. I’m having hard conversations, I’m helping to create space for more connections, and I’m thinking long and hard about what people say. I’m learning to be braver and to understand that going along with the status quo is how we got here in the first place. At 68, I can easily say that this is the most complex period of time I have ever experienced in my life. But even in this complexity, the basic notion that people are suffering is enough to know and remember. And I am reminded again and again that there is never a time when my own personal freedom is more valuable than someone else’s safety and security.