To Better Live in the World
In life and social media I am connected with women whose collective education, life experiences, natural talents, and intellectual acuity actually overwhelm me. My network consists of poets who convert sorrow into beauty, Southern mothers adept at bringing graciousness to the most undignified situations, and even a paratrooper who can defy gravity. The women who raised me, my high school and college girlfriends, and my current and former colleagues are eloquent communicators, formidable advocates, generous nurturers, and capable providers. Yet all of us complain too much and do too little for others, in spite of both our abilities and our political insistence on a more progressive American society.
As a language instructor and literary scholar, I never want to position myself against either rhetoric or dialogue, even as they serve as pure forms of self-expression or attempts at simple human connection, particularly since women have been denied speech in so many distinct moments and spaces. Long before feminism existed as either a term or movement, women were battling for public access to their own words; they published under male pseudonyms and produced incredible prose in their private journals, eloquently and persistently reminding men that their stories deserved public validation.
Acknowledging this reality, I understand why the women in my social network are so eager, desperate even, to discuss our discontent, articulate our concerns, illustrate through emojis and memes the raw sentiments that might otherwise seem too complex or oppressive. My friends indicate that they are “feeling annoyed” reading politicians’ lewd, sexist remarks, “feeling heartbroken” reflecting on environmental crises, “feeling frustrated” confronting the numerous deficits in public education. We support each other with bursting red angry faces and “likes” of encouragement and consider ourselves activists because we are informed and refuse to remain silent.
But maybe we have become skilled enough at speaking up, and it’s our stillness that’s damaging. We fought for both a voice and an opportunity to work and serve outside our homes, yet now we seem hesitant to move our opinions outside, away from the computer, in order to enhance their worth beyond our own satisfaction at being heard.
During the past couple of years, and especially since the 2016 presidential election, I have been contemplating hope and service to others, and how to bridge the gaps between my abstract beliefs and daily practices. How many articles should we share about climate change or reproductive choice before we accept that others are familiar with our opinions and start to instead offer our creative, spiritual, social, and intellectual gifts in service to these causes? From my own experience volunteering with a literacy and writing program, I can affirm that it feels more productive and hopeful to serve than complain, to embrace my talents in order to further a project, rather than a theoretical agenda.
We often explain our refusal to volunteer, or otherwise commit to tangible service, as an obvious result of our busy schedules. Without minimizing the importance of our many commitments, however, I believe that if we choose other priorities, we must admit our unwillingness to dedicate time or energy to the very causes we identify as essential.
As professional women, we work demanding hours, and still need to care for our bodies, homes, and families, but if we’re honest, we reserve time for what we value. If that purpose isn’t community service, how do we justify the intensity of our anger and frustration when politicians either ignore or attend superficially to our communities’ most pressing concerns?
Is it that difficult to find two hours a week to tutor or one evening a month to clean a public park? Could we offer to watch a neighbor’s children once in a while without expecting compensation? Could we spend family time, just occasionally, on a service project instead of at home or the movies? Wouldn’t any of these acts contribute more than anything we could say---particularly to the social media friends already acquainted with our preferred political and philosophical rhetoric?
I have challenged myself to find with every complaint I make, an equal and opposite chance to serve, to use my skillset to mend divides between theoretical values and reality, rather than blowing them up with resentment or digging them deeper with worry.
As International Women’s Month begins, I think about the women I admire most, yet none come to mind because of their articulacy when complaining or their adept social media presence. Instead my role models harness their abilities to better live in the world, actively sharing hope in their communities, and, in doing so, demonstrating, instead of describing, their vision for American society.