Yesterday I found myself standing with a sign in a one-woman protest on the corner of Central Expressway and SMU Boulevard down in Dallas. It’s not the first time that I’ve been involved in a protest, but it was a little unusual to be out there alone.
I had thought that I would be joining a larger group, but when I arrived, most of the others were in the process of moving to another location where they would be for quite some time. My reason for participating in the protest didn’t really make sense in the context of where they were headed, so I decided to stay put. A few others contemplated staying with me but then headed home instead.
So there I was. Alone. On the access road at an incredibly busy intersection. During rush hour. With about a dozen police officers watching me from the other side of the access road. No problem.
I held my sign and smiled at passersby, including the many who waved or otherwise cheered me on. I recalled a time when my Grandma had launched her own solo protest (at the age of 80), chuckling about how this sort of thing must run in the family. Then a man in a business suit crossed the street to talk to me. I smiled and politely asked him how he was doing, and he introduced himself as a sergeant for the police department. He explained that I was within my legal First Amendment right to be there, and then he proceeded to tell me a few rules for standing on that corner (most of which sounded like “rules for not getting run over by a speeding car”).
He asked me how long I would be there, and I said that I didn’t know. I made an innocent remark about how I would have brought some bottled water if I’d known there would be so many officers present, and I said that I hoped they were all comfortable. He laughed, thanked me for my concern, and said they were doing well. I guess he decided that I didn’t require monitoring from quite so many officers because most of them left after that. Two stayed behind, and to be quite honest, it felt more like they were watching out for my safety than anything else. A bit surreal.
I’m telling this story because it relates to an aspect of myself that it took me a long time to come to terms with. When I was younger, I had a rather romanticized view of activists, mainly from movies. I also loved to read about transformative movements such as the Civil Rights Era and the women’s suffrage campaign. I fantasized about living in other historical eras and felt that I was out of my element in my own surroundings.
During once such phase, I declared to my mother that I should have been around in the 1960s because I would have been an excellent hippie. She responded by saying that I would have hated the lifestyle because I valued my alone time too much to live in a commune or travel around on a bus. I wasn’t about to admit it, but I knew deep down that she was right. Yet, it looked so glamorous in the movies: dancing around in fields to “San Francisco” (I loved to wear flowers in my hair), protesting the Vietnam War, and risking the possibility of going to jail for my principles.
As an adult, I’ve learned that I simply don’t have the personality to be a radical activist. I soooo wanted to be one, but I’m not very good at it. Although I participated in debate throughout high school and still sometimes enjoy the challenge of “winning” an argument, it usually exhausts me now. I want everyone to get along. I don’t like war, but my dreams for world peace extend to inner peace. And when pushed, I’m more likely to become rude and say things that I end up regretting, which doesn’t help with the whole inner peace thing.
I will still join in public protests when I’m able (I love the energy of community and collective action), but then I’ll balance these group gatherings with solitary activities such as blog writing and artistic expressions.
Now, the most important thing I’ve realized with regard to this aspect of myself is that I’m not better or worse than anyone else because of my method of engaging with the people around me. For so long I felt inadequate because I’d watch friends do all this really cool stuff that I didn’t feel comfortable doing. But there is really no reason for me to feel inadequate.
I can admire some activists’ willingness to capture lots of people’s attention with their bold, aggressive actions and appear regularly in the media while recognizing that I prefer to maintain a lower profile. Conversely, I’m not going to develop an attitude that I’m somehow superior to others because of my more gentle approach to social and political movements. We’re all striving for a better world, and when we work together, each drawing on our own gifts, we can accomplish amazing things.
What I’d like to encourage others to do is to get to know yourself. Learn what your strengths are in terms of advocating for a world in which all people are treated with dignity, live in a safe environment, and have their basic needs met. Then find a way to insert yourself into spaces in which you can make a difference. It’s OK (perhaps even good) to get angry sometimes about the injustices and violence in this world, but don’t let anger consume you. Find balance with compassionate people and with activities that make you happy. Treat yourself with grace, and don’t beat yourself up for being different from others.
Also remember that some people will be able to dedicate more time and energy to social causes than what you might currently be able to do, and that’s OK too. We’re all on our own journeys. Be proud of what you are able to accomplish, and hold onto this wisdom from Mother Teresa: “Peace begins with a smile.” Smiling is something that almost all of us can do, even when it’s only on the inside.