A Thousand Small Changes

When I was younger, a teenager and twenty-something, I stayed angry almost all the time. It was exhausting, to me and – I think – to the people around me. This went on from middle school through my mid-twenties: an ongoing frustration with both large and small aspects of life in 1980s and ’90s Alabama, a place that had side-stepped the latter twentieth century. That culture urged itself upstream through a reactionary regression against modern civil liberties and by choosing tactless leaders seeking perhaps to be our next big charismatic— we had a governor who acted like a monkey to mock the teaching of evolution, a lieutenant governor who peed in a jug on the senate floor, and a small-town judge who refused to take down his Ten Commandments plaque. The backwards trajectory of my Deep Southern home state’s culture in the 1980s and ’90s, coupled with a daily torrent of minor bullying and badgering by its man-on-the-street advocates, pushed me – and lots of others who felt like I did – into a constantly defensive mindset that was usually accompanied by surly, biting sense of humor.

Casual on-lookers in those days would sometimes ask me, why do you insist on being different? The answer: I just couldn’t go along with what I saw around me. And we know what happens to people who don’t go along . . . especially in the Deep South, a region with a substantial reputation for its handling of those who don’t go along.

Living as a detractor among the supporters meant that life was doubly difficult. Not only was the status quo not OK with me, the public reaction to my rejection of it only enhanced the negativity. I was, at once, living in a culture for which I expressed chagrin while living among people who felt free to express their chagrin at my chagrin. So, for most of a decade, from the mid-1980s into the mid-1990s, I did what many nonconformists in this situation do: I harbored deep animosity (even for some things I knew nothing about), I assumed that I was smarter than the people I criticized, I did little to learn about or understand what I disliked, and I sought ways to get as far as I could from all of it. In short, I adopted and embraced the worst, most self-righteous, most immature, and most regrettable response: I am better than what doesn’t suit me. When we’re young, everything can seem personal, and voluntarily succumbing to the rut of polarization – there’s you all, and there’s me – can seem the best option for facing one’s opponents.

Today, I regard the life I’ve spent in Alabama, among so many people with whom I disagree, as a privilege. It has been the learning experience of a lifetime to have been immersed for so long in a culture that willfully perpetuates its own worst problems. Don’t get me wrong: it’s still frustrating, and I do still get angry— but now, I don’t stay that way.  For the last two decades, I have watched the glut of inane political maneuvers, the lack of candor about our obvious problems, the crippling paralysis of our preoccupation with the culture war, and the creeping seepage of our wealth out of the state, and being here to witness it has yielded in me a patience that I never thought possible and a sense of humor that I never would have imagined.

Some part of me believes that Alabama has actually put me through the seven stages of grief. It began with shock and denial at Alabama’s wild and unruly defiance of modern norms, then transitioned to pain and guilt over this being my home. Later, anger and bargaining took over, as I tried after college either to change the culture or leave, and that gave way to depression when neither of those things happened. The upward turn came when I began learning about our state and its complexities in my mid-20s, and the past seventeen years have been the reconstruction/working-through. And now here I am at acceptance and hope, with the admission that a particularly acidic sense of humor and the Biblical admonition to “shake their dust from your feet” often keep me going.

For most of a decade, I fought Alabama, and I lost. But that’s OK, because now, in middle age, I understand that it isn’t my job, my duty, my right, or my privilege to have the world look like I think it should. Besides, it’s also like the warden in Cool Hand Luke said: “There’s some men you just can’t reach.” It took me a while to learn that— and another deeply important notion: reach the ones that you can. Ultimately, I found my role as a foot soldier, as a writer and researcher, as an educator, as a pack mule for the new school.

Here in Alabama, there’s still no shortage of work to be done. The people, actions, and scenarios that stoked the decade-long temper tantrum of my youth are still here doing the same things: re-electing ineffective politicians, refusing any and all reform, blaming a host of boogeymen— but those of us with hope have hung in there so long that we’re beginning to see some light. I doubt that Bryan Stevenson imagined the grandeur of the recently opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice when EJI was the struggling one-man operation that he described in the early chapters of Just Mercy. I also doubt that Doug Jones had an unwavering certainty about beating Roy Moore and becoming a US senator. While I’m neither Bryan Stevenson nor Doug Jones, my less-grandiose work is informed by a similar attitude: let’s get one necessary task done right, then let’s move to the next one and do it right, too. 

Not long ago, an old college friend, who I haven’t seen in twenty years, contacted me and in her catching-up message, she made reference to my then-penchant for “melancholy seriousness.” With a mixture of embarrassment and concession, I reflected a little bit on her reminder of my morose attitude, and I think I know now why I dragged it around with me: when we’re young, the world is so exciting and confusing and infuriating that some of us try to swallow it whole, but then all we do is choke or get a belly ache. The risky vigor of youth can be compelling and endearing, and it can create some wonderfully surprising results, but here’s the truth: real social change is made by people who persevere, who hang in there for the long haul.

Alabama has whipped my butt more than once, and it will probably continue to whip my butt for my entire life. The bright side, for me and the people around me, is: I’m no longer some long-lost romantic, bitterly waiting for the revolution. Instead, I’m way past being angry and always busy with the hopeful sense that a thousand small changes can add up to a few, very necessary big ones.

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