I want to share a personal story – not one I’m proud of.
Decades ago I was riding on public transportation in the Washington, DC area when two well-dressed white men in about their 40’s or early 50’s began making anti-Semitic comments, blaming Jews for all the woes of our country. They went on and on for about 15 minutes while my rage at their stereotyping began to bubble over. So what do you think I did?
I was afraid.
But I hadn’t been afraid to protest the war in Vietnam. I hadn’t been afraid to protest the killing of 13 unarmed students on the campus of Kent State University in 1970 that ultimately led to the closure of colleges and universities across the country. It’s easier to have courage when in the company of likeminded people. It’s harder to have courage when standing alone.
Since the murder of George Floyd, I have thought about that first incident almost daily. Because I didn’t stand up. I didn’t speak up. I just cowered in my seat immobilized by my fear. In retrospect I wonder: What are we afraid of that keeps us from standing up against racism, discrimination, bigotry and injustice? Could it be
- Fear of personal harm
- Fear of rejection or ridicule
- Fear of confrontation
- Fear of doing anything that will fuel their beliefs
- Fear of loss of employment or loss of income
This is the time to find our courage and our voices. To acknowledge fears that stand in our way and, as in the title of a classic book, “Feel the fear . . . and do it anyway.”
"Courage is not the absence of fear, but the mastery of fear."
~ Mark Twain
We can find our courage to do the right thing by calling up memories of how good it felt when you did what you thought was right. I think back on how weak and ashamed I felt when I let my fear immobilize me against the anti-Semitic conversation. And the very different sense of pride I felt when our protests honored the memory of the young students killed at Kent State. Cowardice vs. courage. Two different behaviors. Two different feelings of self-worth.