Like many children, I ran away from home.
Not literally – I was way too chickenshit for that. I did dream of building a raft and going down the Mississippi from Memphis to New Orleans on it after reading Huckleberry Finn, but it never happened.
No, my childhood was about wanting and desiring what I did not have, and rejecting that which I did have. And so as soon as I was able, I left.
One example of this is that while I am naturally like both of my parents – my mother’s boldness and passion, my father’s introversion and peacemaking – I saw those things as flaws to overcome, rather than gifts to embrace.
Our heroes often contain what we lack. How many bullied children have looked up to Superman and dreamed that they too could save the day and be respected for their strength? Our conception of God (or gods) often does too, but that is another conversation for another day. As the meme’s say, y’all ain’t ready for that conversation.
My heroes were rich. Assertive. Full of confidence. Respected for their business acumen. Donald Trump. Lee Iacocca. Gordon Gecko.
Or strong, physically. Lee Haney. Sylvester Stallone. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
I had no heroes that worked behind the scenes for systemic change, who showed up and did the work and were respected for their work ethic, their persistence, and their wisdom. That isn’t to say I did not know such people: I did, and was raised by them. But I did not see those traits as traits to be admired.
So I ran away to become strong and rich. I was a Marine and then a salesman. I was strong and if not rich, I made good money and learned that lesson many people who aspire to wealth learn – how to fake it: You lease cars you cannot afford to buy, you buy your designer suits at factory outlets, you learn enough about wine to drop tidbits into conversations at dinner in the restaurant you put on your credit card.
But this post isn’t about that – I have covered that ground elsewhere.
Even after I walked away from that life, I still tended to approach things as someone assertive and full of confidence, full of privilege and assertiveness. Like, imagine Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket, but after he joined a contemplative order of monks.
In some sectors of the Christian Tradition, they lift up aggressive voices that conflict with the status quo and call them prophetic, and if they are not honored, they are often respected. I often got put in this camp, and thus received social recognition and reinforcement for my privilege and brashness.
It becomes an endless cycle, however, and you have to keep amping up the aggressiveness or else you risk someone else being more aggressive that you are, and thus eclipsing you and then you no longer get the social reinforcement you crave and are feeding on. And then, like Icarus, you may end up flying too close to the sun and destroy yourself in the process.
When I moved to Jackson three years ago, I was exhausted after more than a decade of being the angry prophet that vigorously defended my community’s right to exist.
The last three years have been a time of rebuilding and reflecting. Of doing good work that nobody on Facebook knows about. Of building local relationships. Of learning how to actually organize people to action, instead of just making them angry. Of learning how to change things when you are not the one in charge. Of learning how to take care of myself. A time of learning how to fall in love with a place and its people.
It is not lost on me that had I embraced the models I had at home, I could have saved myself a good 25 years of striving.
After I was an adult, my Dad once told me his goal over his career had been to be both indispensable and invisible.
“Son, if the only way people know you are important is that you told them you were, then you weren’t important anyway.”
I’m trying, Dad. I’m trying.