My Idiosyncratic Transition from Normative to Progressive
The year was 1997 and it was the summer before my Senior year of High School. I was in Brazil as a Christian Missionary, spreading the “good word” to the poor, primitive foreigners as if they were somehow less enlightened for speaking another language and living in another place. My ignorance shone bright when I called home from a small border town near the jungle and squealed in surprise and excitement when I found out the operator spoke English. Her frustrated retort of, “Yeah, a lot of us speak English here,” barely fazed me, at the time, but resonates strongly even to this day. That simple, yet profound, display of utter ignorance was like a brand that informed every thought and action of mine in those days.
I was, at the time, set in heart and mind to attend seminary and become a preacher and missionary as my permanent vocation. After all, what could be more noble a calling than spreading the word of God to the Godless Heathens of the “Third World.”
The next year, Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky became a public spectacle, and I reveled in berating the liberal president for his infidelities. It wasn’t, however, because of his leveraging of power over women. That was OK in my eyes; women were meant to be subservient to men in every way. That’s what the bible prescribed and any divergence from that was abhorrent. Oh no, it was simply the infidelity, the breaking of God’s law by a liberal president, that drove my ire.
As Clinton’s time in office came to an end, I supported George W. Bush as much as a politically detached, and politically illiterate, conservative Christian could. I voted party-line and noted how much better it would be to the philanderer-in-chief.
My first day working in the aviation industry was September 11, 2001. I had just gotten my facility tour when the first plane hit, and everyone scrambled to figure out what was happening. I’m sure if Facebook had existed at the time, I would have been proudly posting pictures of eagles with witty sayings like, “These colors don’t run!” all day.
Working for a fairly conservative company and being a Christian Conservative in post-911 America, I began to slip into reflexive bigotry against anyone from the Middle East, aside from the few who were friends of mine. Those friends didn’t remain so for long. I spoke out against Islam even though I couldn’t have told you the first thing about it. My racism and self-righteousness blossomed in that time, right through my fervent support of the reelection of President Bush. After all, he had a war to finish……right?
In those days, I wasn’t a good person. I was ignorant about most things. I would have been the guy posting crappy inspirational memes and feel-good articles while demanding that people “agree to disagree” and just stop talking about politics, religion, or anything of any real import. I thought women were there to serve the interests of men. I thought other races were inferior, and to be “saved” by a savior such as myself, rather than be understood. I thought that if you were poor, it was because you were lazy. Homosexuality (which I used to describe anything on the LGBTQ+ spectrum) was a sin and just plain icky. I demanded, in my mind, that they “don’t hit on me” as if any would be interested in such a horrible bigot as myself.
I was decent at my job and utterly arrogant about it. I spoke down to everyone who wasn’t like me or didn’t defer to me. That cost me friends, jobs, and more, though I couldn’t see it. I was ignorant and uneducated, living day-by-day in an aimless trek through life on a path that couldn’t, in any way, end well.
It wasn’t until I found myself laid off at the end of 2008 that I began reevaluating my very core.
I was in a bad relationship that would last for several more years and have a deconstructive effect on who I was, paving the way for the person I needed to become. It was a cleansing fire that burned me down to where my self-perception was of the lowest form of nothing, replacing my deep pride and arrogance with an even deeper self-loathing. While this is probably the worst way to find humility, it started me on the path and left me a clean, if chipped and worn, slate on which to write a new life with new purpose.
During this time, I went back to school and started to study things on my own. Over the course of five years, I accumulated a substantial library of books on all manner of topics: politics, religion, science, history, and more. I listened to intellectual podcasts and watched documentaries. I fell into the atheist and skeptic communities and built a foundation of critical thought, learning how to discern fact from fiction, and how to determine an expert opinion from an uninformed one.
The changes, while profound, came in small, incremental steps………well, more often they came as missteps, as I navigated the pasture of progressive thought that is littered with landmines of regressive heel-digging and pseudo-intellectualism. I learned and failed and fell and stumbled and learned some more, and that hasn’t changed much these past years.
These days, I’ve developed an understanding of the power structures in society that are expressed in relative standings of privilege and oppression across demographics. I can navigate scientific claims with some level of accuracy. I’ve long maintained a deep study of religious ideologies, but I also understand the balance between criticizing ideas and discriminating against people who don’t hold the same understandings or beliefs. I know that, while many ideas are worth discussion, some abhorrent ideological stances should be violently dismissed without consideration. I value knowledge and the journey towards obtaining it above most things, and I value humanity above all things.
I’m nowhere near the standard I’ve set for myself. My goals are far out of reach to ensure that I never stop learning and striving to be a better person. I misstep every single day. There are times when I’m so paralyzed by fear that I don’t speak up when I should. There are times when I speak too much and stumble over my words like a high school freshman in my first speech class, so unsure of my words, ideas, and core beliefs that I fail to be a good ambassador for what I know is right.
That’s something we all, as communicators, activists, and human beings, all too often get wrong. We expect perfection. We come down like an avalanche on the slightest misstep. We fail to realize that we, too, are learning and growing and making mistakes. Even someone who is a member of an oppressed group holds privilege in other aspects in their society, and can be wrong, and can misstep. We all need to strive and grow and learn.
And so, my journey today leaves me in a new place. The time I’ve spent pondering my journey lately has left me nostalgic and really considering what I leave behind.
I spent years doing science communication, and more recently spent years hiding from the world and doing little more than the occasional Facebook post. I lost my confidence, my taste for the conversation, my love of learning. I’m slowly regaining it, however, and I hope to step forward more and more to be at least some small force for progressive thought in the battle against anti-intellectualism and hate.
In the scope of our lives, we all strive to leave a symphony in our wake, a magnificent mark upon the hearts and minds of the world so as to never be forgotten. If we leave but a single verse or refrain, we’ve done more than most to change the world. If I leave my mark on one person, it will be enough.
What will your legacy be?