The philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote, “…we are in many respects at the mercy of external causes and are tossed about like the waves of the sea when driven by contrary winds, unsure of the outcome and of our fate” (The Ethics, Part III, Prop. 59). I suspect this is how many of us feel throughout much of our lives. I feel this way on a recurring basis, particularly as my life and career have meant navigating complex race and class dynamics in my own neighborhood. Just when I think I have my bearings, I’m reminded there is so very much to learn, and I am so very ignorant. This isn’t false humility, and it’s hard to admit, particularly for someone to whom others frequently look for guidance and direction.
I am motivated to share this having recently read author and activist D. Watkins’ reflections on his own insecurity and perceived failure with regard to 46-year-old Dante “Tater” Barksdale, the Safe Streets violence interrupter who fell victim to violence on the streets of his beloved city. “I know enough to know,” writes Watkins, “that the world around me doesn’t want to see the hurt I have for Dante and the dozens of other friends I’ve lost over the past few years. The world doesn’t want to see it about as much as I don’t want to share it, so we all continue to perform instead.” Watkins mourns performance as a coping strategy for trauma and grief. Barksdale, he says, was “…one of the few people who would tell the truth about the things you don’t want to hear.”
Watkins may be too hard on himself, as he is someone who makes a living pointing out uncomfortable truths, but that’s hardly for me to say. I suspect what he’s really getting at is a question of integrity. Is it phony, it is failure, to lead different private and public lives, to hide our pain from the world? The sage Rava suggests it might be when he says, “Any Torah scholar whose insides do not match his outsides is no scholar at all” (Bavli Yoma 72b). And another Talmudic tractate (Pesachim 113b) suggests God is said to despise three types of people, one of them being “a person who says one thing but means another.”
So, D. Watkins feels he’s failing his late friend when he puts on a happy face or glosses over his pain in his writing. I feel something similar when I write in this column with pride about our shul’s relational justice work but avoid sharing some of the more painful personal stories. Like my friend and neighbor for whom I would provide frequent support of various kinds until I tried to put him off while spending time with my kids and he sent a series of antisemitic and hurtful texts. Or a woman who lives on my block and who is still nasty to me when I see her because, nearly a decade ago at 2 a.m., exhausted and anxious about not sleeping on the eve of Yom Kippur, I called my next-door neighbor and left a passionate voicemail insisting he deal with his incessantly barking pit bulls. He and I eventually worked it out. I apologized for my tone. He did better dealing with the dogs. Then, he moved away. But the woman (a friend of his) still ignores me when I say hello or mutters hurtful things under her breath.
What keeps me going, though, is both a sense of duty to work toward a more just society and an inner voice, honed over many years, reminding me not retreat when things get uncomfortable and hard. As theologian Reinhold Niebuhr prayed (and which was later adapted into AA’s Serenity Prayer): “[God], give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.” Seeking justice isn’t easy because the struggle is fundamentally born out of resistance to complacency and discomfort. Integrity requires vulnerability, to be sure, but true failure is only when one determines the arduous journey toward greater fairness and equity is no longer worth taking at all.
A version of this post appears in the March 2021 issue of Jmore.