Injustice will hold the reins until we are less committed to the
American dream of prosperity and property than we are to the
American dream of liberty and justice for all.
black painted silhouettes of his tools. There were about six rows of ten,organized
according to type, a row for wrenches, a row for pliers, a row forhammers, and so on,
with a hook in the top of each tool’s image. I was five, and Iwas replacing a tool to
each assigned home as he handed them to me. He wasat the front of the garage
and slid underneath a car he was repairing. He couldnot see if I was doing the job
properly but had said, “I trust ya to do yer best.”
To do my best, I had to stretch across a worn bench in front of the wall, and mybelly
had become plenty scrounged from the routine. My arms and knees lookedlike
Rorschach blots of coal dust and motor oil. On one swipe back, I spied anickel
wedged in a crack in the bench, and I dug it out. I wiped the buffalo on itclean with
my thumb, and thought, “Finders, keepers.”
Bamp always paid me a nickel for helping him, and now I’d have a dime. In 1956,
you could buy something with a dime, and I thrilled at the thought of a paper dollbook
at the neighborhoodconfectionerythat cost exactly that. It was the LennonSisters,
and everyone in my kindergarten class had one but me.
I began looking for a place to hide the nickel when I began wondering why I was
hiding it. And, of course, even at five, I knew. It wasn't my nickel. I put it back onthe
bench with more than a little resentment. It was only a nickel. I only wantedpaper
dolls. How could anyone even know to whom the nickel belonged? It wasn'tfair. But
I was young enough to still think I couldn't take it just because my soultold me I just
I told Bamp that I’d finished the chore, and I suddenly felt so peculiar that I didn'teven
want to wait for my “pay.”
“Git back here, Mona Lynne. You forgotsumpin',” he called as he crawled from
beneath the black and white Packard.
He stood and reached in his coverall pocket with his right hand and then took my
right hand with his left. He peeled open my fingers, placed a nickel on my palm,
cleaned off the buffalo with his thumb and a grin and then folded my soiled fingers
around it. I thanked him and was running out to play, but he called me back again.
“You really wanted that nickel back there on the bench didn't you?”
I looked down at my bare feet and played with a hole in the cement floor with my
“It was only a nickel,” I mumbled the lame defense of my near larceny.
He sat on a stool and pulled me on his lap, “Oh Mona Lynne, it was way morethan a
nickel honey. It was your character that almost got stole.”
I didn't get it, and I said so. So, he explained.
“If you’ll steal a nickel, you’ll steal a million dollars. If you sell your character for alittle
thing, you’ll sellitfor anything, because you’ll start to git used to puttin'yourcharacter
up for sale. After awhile, you won’t think twice about it. I seed it happento folks.”
He put me back on my feet and before gently pushing me toward the door, headded.
“Don’t make havin'stuff important, honey. It just leads to thinkin'you oughta have
more stuff. And it don’t make you important, That’s the saddest damn thing folks
wanna believe. Don’t let that happen to you. Yer as important as yer ever gonnabe,
which is mighty damned important, by the way. You can have everything in theworld
but if you got it by sellin'even a thimble of your soul, you don’t own nuthin'. Ithink
that'sin the bible, even, but I ain't sure.”
I don’t know whether I believed him that day or not, but still I could almostphysically
feel it sinking in some place within me. Fifty years later, I believe itcompletely.
I wish I could say I have never sold out. The truth is I can’t calculate the number of
times I have. I called it “compromise.” I’d carry water for a boss’s error to keep ajob
or get a raise. I’d pretend I believed something I knew to be a lie to not makewaves.
I’d dance around some sycophantic Maypole, holding hands with otherswhile we
sang the praises of the powerful or the elite while they were in ourpresence, only to
trash them likeastaleash tray when they left the room.
For so long, too long, I wanted to achieve success and prove my worth, and Ibelieved
that without status and salary I could not do that. People made fun ofpeople who
lived on my side of the tracks. They believed we were lazy and stupid,and I wanted to
prove they were wrong. I became too skilled at rationalizingselling-out for the sake
of “progress.” I learned to dress like the elite, talk like theelite, and I kept telling
myself that once I was inside, truly inside, then I couldmake good things happen.
Sometimes it even seemed to work. I’d get someprogram in place that was a little
better than the status quo, but only after it hadbeen simmered-down for privileged
On rare occasions, I suspected something was perverse in this method. During
some of these cooking sessions I would swallow whole the stereotypical insultsthat
were chewed in a meeting like canapés, e.g. “Do these people even want tolearn?
Why do we care what Joe Six-pack thinks? We’re doing them a favor byexcluding
them; they wouldn't feel comfortable with us,” etc. I began to recognizea pattern.
Whenever I sold an idea, I never sold it on its merit, i.e. because it was the rightthing
to do. This was a particular nexus of my moral downfall in the dance. Worse, I took
pride in my ability to fool them. I created my own repertoire of deceitand called it
“cleverness. I only made “progress” when I tricked the power intothinking my
proposal would be an advantage to them in money or status, whetherit was or not. I
became rather good at tricking them. (Though admittedly, afterawhile, some did
catch on to me.) I also began to realize the “real” world wasactually very phony.
I had also come to patently accept a cavalcade of lies. For example:
“I deserve to earn more because I have academic credentials.”
“I deserve more respect because I have academic credentials.”
"I deserve more respect because of my professional or political position."
“Lawyers deserve a high wage because we think about our jobs/clients a lot oftimes
for which we can’t bill.”
“I deserve my six figure salary because I earn every penny of it.”
“People with more money take more risks.”
“Powerful people have more to lose.”
“It’s more stressful at the top.”
“I deserve more because I have to make the hard decisions.”
“This is the real world. I didn't create it, but I have to survive within how it works.”
“There’s nothing wrong with having nice things.”
There are more I could list, and all of them are fairly easy to dismantle with only a
tack hammer of honest introspection, even if there is partial truth in some ofthem.
Still, it’s simply not possible for a single one to ring completely true withinany
moment the heart cares more about people than status or possessions.
In my own moral shame, I had an uncommon privilege and blessing, I’d failed to
value. My grandfather. Sometimes when I was about to go too far or compromise
too much, I would dream the memory of his placing that nickel in my hand. Iwould
awaken to his witness. I couldn't deny there were people who cared moreabout
people than status or stuff because I had known one. So times arose whenI couldn't
go that far or “compromise” without that shiny buffalo bouncing a beamoff my
So, a shamefully few handful of times, I stood up for something even though Ithought
it might really cost me. For example, in 1994, Bonnie Campbell sold outthe lesbian,
gay, bisexual and trans communities by stating in her first pressconference after her
gubernatorial nomination that she opposed same-sexmarriage. Only weeks before
she had taken checks from a gathering of LGBTfolks while tearfully promising she
would rather not be governor than not defendour equal rights. After her betrayal, she
explained behind the scenes that shewasn't really against same-sex marriage but
that she hadtosaysoin order to winthe campaign. Phil Roeder, one of her staff
wouldremark to other staff, “Lesbianand gay people have nowhere else to go.” It
was toomuch, and the nickel wastoo shiny. So, Richard Shannon and I went to her
nextfundraiser (ironically heldat the home of a gay man), and I asked her publicly
and infront of the press whyshe had done that. The reaction to my gesture was
shockingto me andwrenching. People, whom I thought would agree with me, did
not. Moreover, theyshunned me. As I left the fundraiser, most would not make eye
contact, and thefew who did glared or scowled. That evening was a troubling and
sad onebecause I intuitively knew that I had made myself somehow vulnerable to
harm. Indeed, more harm would come.
I was quickly branded a trouble-maker. Only a few LBGT equal rights supporterstold
me I had done the right thing, and I only know of two who said so publicly. Two of my
critics bothered to advise me on how I had been wrong. I was told mytiming was
wrong, the setting was wrong, and that it wasn't what I did but how Idid it. I asked
how I might have done it right. I was told the fact that I didn't alreadyknow this
demonstrated my inexperience in how to create change. It was also notso subtly
suggested that I was socially awkward in the ways of educated societyas well as
politics, or I would have known that some things are just not done. Iwas most
criticized for my failure to vet my actions past appropriate channels. Inother words, I
didn'tknow my place. Not knowing my place would be reprised insome version in
each controversy I would be accused of creating.
One piece of this however, (admitting this only to myself, having too much ego to
admititto them) I agreed was a fair assessment. I had never understoodprivileged
society. Though I had become bilingual in their language, costumes,and some
customs, their culture still did not make sense to me. This plus thefact that Bonnie
Campbell was eventually made the White House human rightsguru by President
Clinton, while my salary increase was shaved for allowingpolitics to interfere with my
work, left me knowing I needed more study. I bent overbackward checking my tone,
rhetoric, and posture and was more deferential ingatherings. I watched them more,
listened more, and followed more. After a time,it would seem I was forgiven, and my
participation again was sought byprogressive organizations and initiatives.
But justice has her own way of needling you when you've had my grandfather, andthe
shiny nickel would gleam again in my dreams, and I knew I would have tospeak up
for or against something placed before me. Once it was a facultymember who
wouldn't hire gay men and one who sexually harassed hisstudents. Once it was a
nonprofit group that had dishonest employmentpractices. Once it was the university
condoning homophobia on its HumanRights Committee. Once it was about an
upper level female universityadministrator whose male underlings (quite vexed by
this latitude) were trying todrive her out with lies. Once it was a political leader who
was padding receipts toa non-profit organization for her personal profit.
The pattern would repeat itself. I would be called a trouble-maker. People would
hearken back to the time before I had done such a thing as confirmation. I would
again be isolated for awhile. The consequences tomyprofessional and economic
stability would become increasingly harsh. Once Ievengot a death threat by phone,
and the rear window of my car was bashed. Eventually,after one of these stances, I
lost everything I owned but ten boxes ofclothing andpersonalmementos.
Sometimes I was not like Gandhi when I was experiencing disappointment in not
feeling the support of community. A few times I was so disappointed or frightened
that I expressed my frustration in ways that could have been a lot better. But only a
few. I was certainly scolded, yelled at, insulted, bullied, and slandered manymore
times than the instances in which my behavior bore review. Others in thearena with
higher status could lose their temperance with far more intensity andfrequency than
was in my repertoire of response and would be forgiven becausethey were “under
stress.” My inability to be always poised was not sounderstood. Most of the time, I
accepted what happened to me and moved on,and (with some inebriated
exceptions I suppose) confiding to a few close friendsthat it had hurt. The irony in
this was that when I was most ensconced on my pitypot and hiding, no one ever
accused me of playing victim. That accusation onlycame after having removed
myself from the pot and was controversially embroiledin actually trying to do
something about it. This irony was so consistent that Icame to expect it, and so I
thought about this a lot. I knew for some reason, myactions warranted “special”
treatment or extra scrutiny, but, except for again notknowing my place, I didn't know
what that reason was.
However, when you've failed as many times as I, there comes a day when youknow
these failures are not about “them,” but about you. When your life’s work atthe age of
52 is reduced to ten boxes, you have to ask yourself what YOU didwrong. After you've
worn out the grooves in your record, “I Got Hurt for Doing theRight Thing,” you have to
look in the mirror. I finally did, and the woman lookingback at me said, “You’re a big
The lies I’d told formed a long parade around me. The times I’d been silent whenI
should have spoken up. The times I’d been tricky for my personal gain. Thetimes I'd
been self-consumed and self-indulgent. The times I did something forpersonal
aggrandizement as much as for the “cause.” The times I’d glossed overa misdeed
to avoid criticism. The times I’d failed my friends. The times I’d failedmy children.
The huge sums of money I’d spent on clothes (that I no longer had)to impress
people when I could have spent it helping people. I had cut cornersand cut deals
when I knew better. I realized that I was at least as hurt I’d not beena professional
success as because I’d been punished for the reasons I was.
“Are you really so different from them?” the woman in the mirror asked me. And, I
knew I was not.
This confession did not make me feel better. In fact, I felt worse. I knew I neededto
change my ways, but I wasn't sure how; and this was very confusing. Moreover,I
intuitively knew I had still not faced the biggest lie. I could at least admit to myselfthat
I wasn't sure I wanted to know what that lie was.
In the early spring of 2004, I was riding a city bus while looking for work. I saw a
woman cross the street, dressed smartly in a tailored herring-bone suit with ashiny
mahogany leather brief case dangling from her trim shoulder. Her shoesmatched
the brief case. Her perfect haircut with perfect ends delighted in thebreeze and
framed her smile. I knew her. We’d been colleagues once. I watchedher embrace
a high level university administrator in the way they do, with elbowspinned to their
sides and cheeks barely grazing. I’d learned to do that too. Iwatched them enviously
and quietly sighed, “Why was I deprived that?”
A quiet voice or a quiet knowing, I’m not sure which, began to whisper to me thenand
revealed my greatest lie. It didn't scold me, but seemed sad for me.
“You weren't deprived of that, you were spared that. Why aren't you grateful?”
I had been given this incredibly blessed life, and I didn't appreciate it. Had I beena
professional success, I would have appreciated it even less. I would havebelieved
I'd proven some ridiculous Horatio Alger myth and beaten the odds withmy personal
genius and prowess. I’d have been sitting around with others in myprice range
talking about how I’d earned my success and patting myself on theback for a crumb
or two of justice we’d pushed through the barriers. I would beobserving how anyone
who thought I’d sold out didn't understand how thingsworked in the real world. I
would resent that those still oppressed didn't realizehow lucky they were that
someone with my values was in a position of influence.
I would feel a hole in my soul, a sense that something was missing. I would
occasionally share that with an economic peer who would admit to feeling thesame
thing. We would decide we needed a vacation or a massage, a funnymovie, a new
hobby or an adventure, or maybe even a little therapy to feel better. Nothing, however,
would ever really fill the hole for long, and I would vie for thenext higher post on the
ladder telling myself that more status would somehowprove something or at least
make things better. And, if I got it, I would believe Ideserved it.
I would cheat more, lie more, and carry more water because I had a right to
economic survival and that’s how it works in the “real” world. I would havebecome
even more lost than I was.
Despite my efforts to subvert it, I was fortunate to have instilled in me at the age offive
a sense of value that was stronger than my personal greed. Even when Iignored
that sense, It was a good student, taking notes of what I’d learned andstoring it away
for a time when I might be more responsible with the knowledge. Those few times
when I did listen to that voice, it was not mindful of myprofessional success,
because it knew such success was meaningless. Ithelped me to learn this too by
sparing me too many confirmations of that lie. Howimpatient it must have been with
my slowness in learning.
I began to understand that the first breath of violence is wrought when one human
being feels more worthy of possessions and status than another. It’s a story asold
as Cain and Abel.
Finally, and for the first time in a very long time, I felt lucky, utterly completely lucky. I
felt the relief of someone who’d survived a car wreck after I’d been speeding. Isaw
the great fortune of my life, the friends who’d been there for me, thegrandfather who
believed in me, children who, despite my flaws, loved medeeply. I had never gone
hungry, and I’d always been given a bed (or at least acouch) on which to sleep. On
that bus ride I briefly emerged from the dark night ofthe soul to its broad light of day.
I hadn't failed because I’d not achievedprofessional success. I’d failed because I’d
lied constantly to myself thatprofessional success was more important than people.
I’d failed the times I didn't stand up for justice in order to protect my stuff and win the
favor of those whowere protecting their stuff. I had failed because I wanted a
material pay off fordoing the right thing.
After that, I began to study those who’d been more selfless in the struggle forjustice
than I. Each book I read whetted an appetite for learning more. I alsobegan to reach
out for others who wanted to learn more and were as interested incharacter
development as much as (or more than) economic or political gain. Ifound a few.
Even though I’d said this often enough while waxing purist in thepast, I began to
internalize the truth that doing anything that might really bringabout sweeping
change is never immediately popular and more often than not aptto get you killed. I
realized that for any slight I’d experienced, real or perceived, thatmy life had been a
joyride compared to theirs. From King to Gandhi to MotherJones to Tubman to
Stanton, none were popular until after they were dead. Thefact that I’d not been a
total sell-out and had taken some hits for a few moments ofmeager courage was
pathetic in comparison. I was humbled and challenged. Iincreased my studies and
would recently tell a friend, “If King could take on theAlabama, Mississippi, and
Arkansas National Guards to change a nation, I cancertainly take on some
nefariousness in Johnson County when all I have to loseis a job.”
My growth has not been smooth. It’s been pretty rocky in fact. I still fall from orbegin
to detour the path. Old habits die hard. Sometimes the fear of losing or notbeing
believed can pitch me into darkness and scare me out of my skin. I stillcatch myself
taking shortcuts when I shouldn't. I still covet now and then a betterjob, matching
dishes, or a nicer mobile home than mine. However, now I’m morewilling, and
sometimes even eager, to admit it. I still second-guess whether I’mdoing the right
thing, especially after I receive disapproval, and more so if thedisapproval comes
from someone I caredeeplyabout. I still judge people too harshlyand let others off
thehook too easily. I still hedge or stay silent about some thingsto keep myself and
others from harm. And, I’m never absolutely sure when mysilence was the right or
wrong thing to do. I seek the counsel of those who havelived more selfless lives
than I, and then make the call. I’m sure sometimes mycall is wrong.
I can’t say that I know all that much about most things anymore. I don’t know whatit
means to be a Democrat, especially when of the top two contenders forgovernor this
year, one is pro-life andtheother okay with a death penalty, and bothare more pro-
corporation than pro-labor. I thought Democrats had differentpositions on those
issues. I don’t know what it means to be a Progressive either(except that a
Progressive is more apt to recycle) since a whole lot ofProgressives seem ready to
settle for that. I don’t know how someone getsaccolades for “walking the walk” who
leaves a cause simply for more money andstatus. I don’t understand the
observation that we can’t keep good people in theCause unless they’re better
financially rewarded. I’m not saying this to be critical. I’m honestly confused. I’m not
confused because people aren't living up to theirvalues. I’m confused because I’m
not sure what our common values are rightnow.
We buy sweaters made by kids who don’t get enough to eat because we can have
five sweaters instead of one. While thousands of children die from starvationeach
year and thousands more perish from curable diseases, we obsess aboutpartisan
politics and voting straight party tickets. We do this though we knowthere is scant
historical evidence that partisanship promotes democracy orameliorates suffering.
Placing hope solely in that basket, however, lets us off thehook. If the system is too
corrupt for us to change it, it’s not our fault.
When all we have to contribute is a critique of what others should be doing, we’renot
contributing much. When we’ll sacrifice a child rather than a third television,we
participate in tyranny. When we squeal on a co-worker to make points with theboss,
we prostitute our character. When we give our elected officials or a CEO apass
because we fear their disapproval, we renounce our citizenship. Injusticewill hold
the reins, until we are less committed to the American dream ofprosperity and
propertythan we are tothe American dream of liberty and justicefor all.
When we prize each other more than property or status, we are amazing. And,
sometimes we do. When we marched five days from Selma to Birmingham, we
weren't looking for bullets on our resume. When we took in Jews in NaziGermany,
we weren't worried we were violating a corporate policy manual. LastSeptember, in
Washington, D.C., 300,000 of us showed up because we were fedup. As I write this
Jill Carroll, whose fate is still unknown, has put her life on theline for truth and justice.
The everyday struggles matter even more. When we stand up to the smallest
injustice, we show the greatest courage. If we can’t stand up to the smallerthings,
we won’t be seasoned enough to tackle the bigger ones. When we objectto a racist,
sexist, classist, or homophobic slur, when we refuse to buy goods thatharm people,
when we buy recycled goods anytime we can, when we stophoarding far more than
we need, when we stand up to an abusive leadership, theworld shifts, and nothing
can stop us.
It doesn't really matter if we’re called trouble makers, slandered, hyper-criticized,or
dismissed with some silly psychoanalysis because we’re not worried aboutmore
“stuff.” What matters is that we know what really matters. We’re saneenough to
want a better world more than better things. I know this is the way wewant it. We’re
too much in love with story of the one who overcomes to wantanything else. We
choke up too quickly when the underdog wins to root for anyother dog. We’ll feel so
much better when we champion the thing that can yield atear of joy than one in which
Few have the courage to walk this path alone, but we don’t have to. Lots of others
are ready to walk it with us. We can become the quality of person my grandfather
wanted me to be in 1956. While we’re creating real change, we’ll sing togethermany
hymns of overcoming, including my grandfather’s favorite, “It is well with mysoul,”
because if we don’t have our souls, we don’t have nuthin'.