I just want to be a good person.
I had an ex girlfriend who told me she wasn’t cynical, just a realist. She was black and lived within an accumulation of life experiences that spoke to her about the nature of people. Not all of it was racism, but that was certainly a big chunk of it. I think about her often and her acquiescence to the idea humans are just bad. If she didn’t raise expectations, she wouldn’t be hurt or disappointed.
My accumulation is pretty heavy too. I’ve survived both sexual and physical abuse. I was bullied relentlessly throughout my school years and it’s even happened to me as an adult. I’ve been sexually harassed at work to the point of it triggering memories of my abuse. My life has been full of self doubt and depression, constantly ruminating on things I did or didn’t do.
So. Many. Regrets.
Then I had a near death experience with necrotizing pancreatitis which left me chronically ill for years. All of the ensuing surgeries affected me cognitively and cost me professionally.
If that wasn’t enough, in my forties, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s. However, this wasn’t as bad as I thought at the time. So much of my past suddenly made sense. I was able to finally put to rest some demons and explain some of my weird, quirky behavior that painted the bullies’ bullseye on me.
All of this is to say, I can empathize with almost anyone. Everyone has pain. It’s simply the human experience.
I grew up in Arkansas and witnessed the most vile, racist behavior regularly. Without realizing it, my autism logic probably kept me from understanding all the hate. I couldn’t comprehend why skin color turned people into assholes. Little did I know at the time we were entering the Age of the Asshole.
People are as great as they are terrible
I’ve always been overly empathetic. Other people suffering can overwhelm me and affect me more than some of my own experiences. And maybe that autism logic is why my personal philosophy is a sort of paradox:
People are capable of behaving way better than they do. People are as great as they are terrible. They have changed and have reinvented themselves with nothing more than just gaining more life experience. So I expect better behavior from people. Can I be a realist and an optimist when there is so much hate out there? I don’t see why not.
We are so in-the-moment, consumed with trigger-happy rage. Social media by its nature keeps us from fully understanding context and fully processing content. It’s designed to be quick, interactive, and terse.
It’s useful to step back and reflect on things. I write a lot about context, but it truly is the key to transforming information into knowledge and then into wisdom.
Time is the contextual factor which allows for self reflection, additional information, and full mental processing. Stepping away from social media and really spending time alone have helped me to grow and be better.
For example, I don’t jump in the fray of comments here on Medium until I’ve thought it over and gotten a good feeling for the author and the comments. I’ve been reading Marley K. for a year, but to understand her is to take in her whole body of writing. She isn’t full of hate; it’s all pain. It’s easy to make snap judgments and contradict her in comments. It’s more rewarding to read, consider, and reflect as she is voicing the complexity of race in America.
As the dialog about race has evolved, I’ve had to update my language skills and ensure I present as an ally. Because, you see, why wouldn’t I want to be supportive of people in pain?
That brings me back to the title of this post. I’ve been called “woke” a few times by peers and it makes me bristle. I think the term is trendy and I feel there are white people looking for some sort of validation or approval with that label. Even more, critics of “wokeism” use the term broadly to undercut the voices of progressive politics, coexistence, social reform, activism, and simple human consideration for others. All of these ideas are complex on their own and should be fully immersive dialogues.
Deep down inside, we all know these ideas are about being a good human being and behaving with empathy, kindness, and understanding. Being a good person is about listening to a collective grievance without a political filter. It’s about things that are bigger than tweets or what some fucking pundit on TV has to say. Applying a label to all of that undermines the work it takes to be a good person on the inside.
No, I am not woke. I’m not perfect. I know in my past I’ve said and done things I can never take back. I also know my Asperger’s with its social anxiety may have been interpreted as passive racism. I would hope that anyone who took it that way could one day see that maybe it was just an awkward moment and cut me some slack in the same way I want to give everyone a chance.
I recently lost a good friend because a ten-minute text exchange about politics was completely misunderstood. It happened so quick and with such emotion, it solidified everything I feel about today’s toxic political culture. I hope with time she reflects and sees that.
After my pancreatitis, I realized that I was carrying hate and resentment toward my abusers and bullies. I let it go because it kept me too guarded to make new friends. So I am trying to understand where my friend is coming from and hoping she will reconnect.
The older I get, the more soft-hearted I’ve become. A lifetime of watching others in pain and living in pain has given me perspective.
Something to Share
This is probably the most personal article you’ll ever get from me. Like I previously wrote, I’m guarded. However, this has been building for a while. I want people to read it and really think hard about they judge, respond, and understand others. I hope that others can learn from someone who’s been through a lot and has world-weary eyes.
Take your life’s pain and imagine somebody else feeling it. It takes very little imagination to gain empathy. Just try to be a good person. Then hope that people will treat you the same. Sure some will disappoint you, but the good in others will outweigh the bad. Don’t fall for the woke label. Instead, look at people as individuals in individual situations. Be a friend. Be present. Listen. Express compassion. Help when it’s asked. That kind of empathy is what you would want, right?