Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Revolutionary Discomfort

The thing about revolutionaries is that they're usually at their best when they're pushing the envelope.

Webster's definitions for the word "revolutionary":

Image courtesy Newtown Graffiti
a : of, relating to, or constituting a revolutionb : tending to or promoting revolutionc : constituting or bringing about a major or fundamental change 

The first two definitions use the root of the same word... so that's kind of useless... but pay attention to the third definition and you'll get an idea of what i'm talking about. Revolutionaries are doing something to shake the fundamentals of society, in the effort to make change.  That effort to shake other people out of their everyday is just going to make some people uncomfortable -- that seems pretty certain, right?

But another part of the equation just occurred to me today. (Forgive me, fellow naysayers and protestors, all ye change agents and questioners of the status quo who may have already verbalized this in a way i haven't been able to before this.)

The first mental hurdle in being a change agent is to know that you're going to make other people feel uncomfortable.

The next is to realize that you -- as the change agent -- are also going to be made quite uncomfortable during this process of making other people uncomfortable.

It's something of a softball toss; you throw out an offhand lobber about poverty and access to adequate medical care or equitable education in the wrong academic or business setting, and you're likely to have a crackin' fastball thrown back at you in other ways. But damn, those are the places where the game needs to be played... 

At the medical clinic where she works, a friend of mine has no problem speaking truth about the concerns of homeless and and low-income mothers. The mothers with weird hair colors and unwashed clothing are barely tolerated by some of the other student midwives, but those moms ask for my friend by name.  For this mentality of treating the mothers with equality, and displaying her commitment to that in other ways, my friend has been the target of much scrutiny for every little detail related to her performance. She's shed the light on certain iniquities in her profession, and in turn she's facing those bright lights for making people feel uncomfortable -- for making others feel slightly bad when they do remember, for just a second, that those mothers are human too.

It's easy to chalk up the conflict that's now arisen to personnel conflicts or her alternative appearance or any number of other nit-picky things that my friend may have done, but the truth is that she's committed to her job, and that others don't face the same scrutiny for similar infractions that may occur.

I told her that it's ok to make people feel uncomfortable, because change never really feels comfortable and it's just going to be like that. But for some reason this is feeling so profound to me tonight -- this idea that though you, as the revolutionary, have embraced the change that should be in this world, and thus already gotten over that uneasy transition-feeling, you have to experience it all over again, in the blowback from others who aren't quite there.

This notion now, for me, requires some shoring up of new reserves. Things are just never so easy as they may seem -- they require more strength and perseverance than is possible in one of these corpuses that we have been given.

But still i told my friend that, indeed, she has to suck it up and keep trying, until she can't anymore, and then perhaps one among them will have heard one thing that they'll remember...


Jack said...

Thank you, Nicole. It is truly an honor to be made welcome by a woman who puts so much effort into doing the right thing for those less fortunate. The worthwhile things are never easy, but if there weren't enough strength and perserverance in one of these old carcasses, then women still wouldn't vote, children would still mine coal, and black people would still be slaves. Get tired, yes; take a rest, fine. But never lie down and give up on something you believe in. Abraham Lincoln, Susan Anthony, and Martin Luther King didn't do what they did because they wanted to be heroes; they became heroes because they did what they did.

You are an inspiring person to know, Nicole Vulcan, and some day when your face is on a coin, my grandkids will proudly tell their friends, "My grandpa knew her!"

Perseverance is a highly underrated virtue, and you make yourself strong by exercising what needs to be stronger. You let the fatcats worry about getting tired. Quiet perseverance, backed by strenth, gets things done. Just keep on doing them...

mikishiki said...

Thanks Nicole for this interesting piece. I too want to be able to speak my truth and call out ignorance, injustice, indifference from a place of centered clarity. I have been working at this for a while but especially this year.

In the past, to challenge someone to rethink what they say and mean was difficult for me precisely for your reasons you laid out. Instead, I would contain my own discomfort from something I found offensive, inappropriate, or insulting.

Learning how to communicate directly with honesty and compassion is an art form. Lately, what I have been doing to challenge my discomforts is to reach out to people not necessarily to call them on their shit but as a gesture of initiative and participation - helping them lift their bags in the metro, striking up a conversation, smiling at know, the really simple things. In Paris, people are terribly disconnected and so it's not as natural to act so spontaneously. But I think it's crucial to be in contact with our humanity in order for us to communicate directly, heart to heart, and effectively make ourselves be heard.

Nico said...

@ Jack - Quiet perseverance, yes. Ironic though, given this public forum! @Mika - were it only that more people understood you can have both honesty and compassion! We don't need to berate one another to have a real dialogue about changing things that need to change. I hope you don't remain an anomaly in Paris for long, for maintaining that contact.

Socrates' Student said...

I enjoyed this piece, helps me to remember that every significant revolutionary started out as a bit of nuisance! Have you ever read an article by Peter Singer called "Famine, Affluence, and Morality"? You might find you have something to say about it ;)

Nico said...

I haven't checked it out, Socrates' Student, but I certainly will! I'll let you know what i think when i get there...