Everyday Courage

A quiet conversation can be transformative—infinitely more so than those decibel elevated, heated arguments where each person is hell-bent on convincing the other, or is refusing to budge, or insists on winning as defined by the other losing.

These days, the latter describes most political exchanges.

But I’ve been thinking about my latest conversation with Deeyah Khan, who recently returned as a guest to my radio program and podcast “Women’s Media Center Live with Robin Morgan.” Born in Norway of Pashtun and Punjabi ancestry, this extraordinary young filmmaker is an Emmy and Peabody Award winner for her documentaries; she’s the founder and editor of Sister-Hood, a digital journal for diverse Muslim women; she’s a feminist activist and human rights campaigner, and a trained, talented musician as performer and composer.

Her newest film, now on Netflix, is “White Right: Meeting the Enemy,” shot during the time she spent openly as a feminist woman of color in the heart of the US neo-Nazi movement, seeking to reach the humanity of men who had sent her death-threats, who call her a “mudskin.” She found that humanity, as she had found it earlier in similarly militant Jihadists who had also threatened her death; frightened men mirroring each other. But this is not a “hug-a-Nazi” message, she notes wryly. What this is, though, is an unforgettable film.

Deeyah wears her courage unobtrusively, like a favorite, old, slightly wrinkled scarf casually flung over one shoulder. There’s no grandstanding about her. She’s no Martin Luther King, Jr. Then again, Martin Luther King, Jr. was no Martin Luther King, Jr., either. He was unfaithful to Coretta, had numerous affairs outside his marriage, was given to temper-blast outbursts—and often felt normal, understandable fear. But for his time, gender, and capacity, he did his best—and it was a very fine best indeed. We tend to turn such people into saints–a convenient way of placing them safely beyond reach of our own ordinary capacities to embody the same behavior. But superhuman doesn’t exist any more than subhuman does. There’s just human.

Fascism depends on the myths of superhumans and subhumans. Democracy depends on the realities of ordinary people. That’s precisely why ordinary is a word that has no real meaning. Ordinary is simply a commonly shared collection of uniquenesses.

I’ve been thinking about how much Deeyah’s everyday courage expresses itself as patience—although an urgent patience—and how one of my character flaws is impatience. (Patience can sometimes feel to me more like passivity than perseverance, though I know better.) Certainly some of this reflects our different cultures: she arrives via Europe’s centuries from the far older millennia of Asia, while I’m a third generation European American born into a country less than 300 years old, and bred in the percussive pace of New York City. But that doesn’t explain the whole of my sometimes frenzied impatience. After all, it’s a fact that we can’t very well send Deeyah out to change the neo Nazis and skinheads of the world one by one. It’s a fact that time is short and the planet can’t stand much more of this.

Still. There’s a shadow tracking my impatience, and if I’m honest, I know it’s not about facts.

It’s about rage—a rage equal to the corrosive energy of those who hate everything we are and do. Those who hate women and other humans with different melanin content in our skins, who hate those of us who are older or younger or poorer, who look different, who speak differently or love differently, who can’t move quite as quickly, who know more than they do, or less. The people who hate what they can’t understand.

I can’t understand the people who hate what they can’t understand.

I cannot understand them, so I fear them. They want me to fear them. I hate them for wanting me to fear them.

A malevolent syllogism forms: the shadow billows open inside me.

When I hate them, I am them.

So I can understand them. I just don’t want to.

So they can understand us. They just don’t want to.

How to make it interesting for us to want to understand them, and the reverse?

So the wheel turns again.

In my panic to expel the shadow, to outrun it, I grow more impatient. I hiss Hurry up, Mr. Mueller—even though his investigation is already moving at light-speed when compared to Watergate, even though he’s dedicated to following the rules impeccably. I pace and fret over delays in lawsuits or investigative reporting, anything that follows the rule of law or solid journalism, follows the system so carefully that it may delay the downfall of this lethal regime. Intellectually, I know that preserving this system is paramount; I know that the alternative is chaos and the destruction of our Republic.

But the shadow murmurs To hell with the rules! Why do WE always have to play by the rules when THEY don’t? Why do WE have to go high when THEY set down permanent roots below?

I don’t think it’s entirely self-serving to bet that this internal battle contorting me for the zillionth time is also experienced by others trying to renew their everyday courage in our magnificently ordinary Resistance.

So again I vomit forth the shadow. Decades of political work trying to outrace it, purge it; knowing that if we descend to their thinking and tactics—however almost overwhelmingly tempting it is at times to enter their Inferno—the price is accepting their vision of life on earth as they define it: power over, not power to; villainy and violence; greed bloated with emptiness; every relationship threatening; the future a choice between hatred and fear.

That’s not the world we glimpse and work toward, imperfect as ours is. Imperfection may be our most reliable ally, because Evolution’s sole tool is what deviates from the norm, the mutation, the mistake—and besides, striving toward a “more perfect union” leaves us a job to do, a way to contribute.

So Deeyah, my small-boned, soft-voiced friend, my sister with the deep-space dark eyes and penetrating camera lens, she’s right, after all. It will take a long time, longer perhaps than we have but not one moment shorter than it needs.

She is further wise to place her trust about patient dedication to the development of humanity in self-serving terms. Because our struggle is ultimately not self-sacrificing or saintly; it’s selfish in the healthiest sense. I’ve always been horrified when the word selfless is used as a compliment, most commonly for women. Selfless. Lacking a self. That’s appalling, if you dwell on it.

On the contrary, the reasons we choose this perspective involve an expanding sense of selfishness, one that welcomes connecting the survival of all life on the planet into our concept of self, and simultaneously tries to bring ourselves into sync with this world’s life and life forms. Creating that concept of self—however long it takes to have any results at all—is through its very doing a process utterly alien to fear or hatred, a process that might be called joy.

We now have the chance to evolve consciously.

Qualities like patience, forgiveness, even trust, have been degraded and commercialized into goody-goody texts for greeting cards, or trademarked as proprietary saccharine “virtues” by religion. Consequently, they now feel puerile, flabby, washed out, evoking cynicism as a sane reaction to such hypocrisy. But if you closely examine how they got that way, you realize these qualities have been feminized, thus trivialized, by a patriarchal culture where opposing attributes like speed, vengeance, and suspicion have been assigned value and imbued with vivid energy. The personal is political.

So I must go back to basics, roll up my sleeves, and try again. Remind myself to focus on what we’re fighting for, not what we’re fighting against. Never mind feeling too tired to work out: I need to daily exercise the muscles of patience; daily flex the sinews of trust.

This is the process of our (r)evolution.

For a half century, I’ve closed speeches to students with a plea urging them to embrace their own audacity, exhorting each to “Carry yourself as one who will save the world. Because you will.” Years after, many of those students have written me that they’ve never forgotten those phrases, which actually affected how they’ve lived their lives. I’m grateful beyond words for that. So now perhaps I can dare say to all of us ordinary Resisters seeking our everyday courage, to each of us at any age:

Carry yourself as one who is saving the world, because you are.

This blog post will be on hiatus until September17, 2018.