If Not Us, Who? If Not Now, When?

Okay.

This is going to be a hard post to write. Even after thinking about it last night and sleeping on it (the time when many of my posts write themselves, ready to pop out at 5:30 in the morning with little help from me), there is a jumble of thoughts in my mind that need to come out in some logical order. That may not be the case this morning, but I beg your indulgence as I try to make some sense of them. I want to make you think about some important things today, as well as sort out some of my own thoughts. 

I got home yesterday evening and sat down for supper. I reached for my iPhone and fired up the NPR app, ready to  listen to some of the stories of the day. One hit me especially hard. I am a middle-aged white man living in the southern United States, and I grew up in the sixties and seventies. I know about racial tension and inequality and the struggles that have gone hand-in-hand with them for the decades since Reconstruction in my home state of Georgia and my now adopted home state of South Carolina. To hear this story about racial tensions as pertaining to the extension of bids for sorority pledges at the University of Alabama, for some reason, just made me want to scream. I don’t really know, yet, why it affected me so much last night. It just did. I got really angry. I think I scared one of my Facebook friends. (I’m sorry about that.) 

From NPR:

“The campus newspaper, The Crimson White, reported allegations this month that two prospective black members were passed over by all-white sororities because of pressure from alumnae, and in one case, an adviser. The coverage caused a wide-ranging debate, even prompting Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, an alumnus, to say that fraternal organizations should choose members based on their qualifications, not their race.

The debate came at an embarrassing time for Bonner’s university, which is marking the 50th anniversary of its racial integration. Alabama admitted its first black students in 1963 after then-Gov. George C. Wallace infamously stood in a schoolhouse door to protest their enrollment. Wallace relented under pressure from President John F. Kennedy’s administration.” 

I immediately flashed to that iconic image of Governor George Wallace standing in the doorway denying black students admission to his state’s school, defiant until President John F. Kennedy’s administration finally made him see his way clear to step aside and allow events to unfold as they finally did, and for the better. I thought about the judge talking to us prospective jurors in the courthouse in my hometown two years ago, two years ago, about the colored only and white only signs on water fountains and bathroom doors that were still there, even though not enforced, after all those years. 

I thought about the injustice of these things. It bothered me. A lot.

Later in the evening, a Twitter friend who reads this blog commented on my not-so-subtle hint that I would soon be returning to a combination clinical and administrative mental health job in the public sector in South Carolina. Her responses to me, in her usual straightforward, no-nonsense way?

“Glad to read that you’re getting back into the fray. You should be out there fighting for the things you’ve been writing about.”

These two things, separate but related, got me thinking a lot last night about our individual and collective responsibility to make the world a better place. To right wrongs. To push for changes that need to be made because they are right. To stand up for those who cannot fend for themselves. To get out of our comfort zones and stick our necks out and push for social and institutional and political change when it is called for. To not be complacent as we go forward in life. To not succumb to the feeling that this is the best it’s ever going to be. 

When I gave up my medical director job four years ago, I was tired. I realized how burned out I was. I was tired of dealing with issues that were out of my control. I was tired of trying to motivate people who just wanted to whine and complain. I as tired of trying to mold systems into positive forces for good, when the architects of the systems and the people who held the purse strings that funded them just wanted to keep things quietly the same, knowing how poorly the target populations were being served. I just wanted to fill my days with clinical work, seeing my patients and making a difference in the world one visit at a time, helping those that I could and hoping that by the grace of God that all the others would find their peace and redemption some other way, through some other channel. Their salvation would not be my direct responsibility. I could not take on the weight of the world. I was no Mother Teresa. 

I have quietly worked in this mode for almost four years now, seeing patient after patient, hearing story after story, writing prescriptions and admonishing and advising and reassuring and listening. It has all been good. One thing has really hit me in the last few months though.

Just because I sit in my office and see patients and pretend that the big picture problems, the systems issues and the moral dilemmas are no longer real does not make it so

I will be fifty-six years old next month. I am highly skilled, highly educated and in the prime of my career. I am not alone. There are many of us. There are big problems in this country and in this world today. They need to be addressed. 

If not us, then who? If not now, then when?

Some twenty-something kid just out of training who is idealistic as hell but has not a clue how the world works? Some seventy-five year old who has all the wisdom and experience in the world but little energy left to be a player on the field?

No.

The people just like me who are old enough to have experience but still young enough to be energetic and resourceful and willing to shake things up must, I mean MUST, get out of their chairs and start the process of change for the better. This is imperative. 

If we don’t tell the world, again and again and again, that it is wrong to discriminate based on the color of one’s skin, Martin Luther King, Jr., will have died in vain.

If we don’t tell the world, again and again and again,  that it is wrong to marginalize someone just because they have mental illness, then more Navy Yard shootings will occur. 

If we don’t tell colleges and universities, again and again and again, that it is wrong to look the other way for decades while children are being abused, then more Penn State coverups will happen.

Count on it.

What is wrong with us?

Why can’t we see that we must be stand up and be responsible for the world around us and do something to make it better for those who will come after us? Why can’t we see that there can be, and should be, more than just one Greatest Generation? 

If not us, who?

If not now, when?

 

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4 thoughts on “If Not Us, Who? If Not Now, When?

  1. Good morning, Doc. I’m gazing out my window and can’t see three feet through the river fog. But here on the screen, your message is crystal-clear, and I agree whole-heartedly. Also, I’m glad to realize you’re “back in the ring.” The ring you never actually left, as I see it. And, I’m inspired to follow suit. Social justice is always worth fighting for. As a 65-year-old, I’ve done so primarily with letters to the editor, though I live in an area (the hard coal region of Northeastern Pennsylvania) that is probably more conservative than South Carolina, where expressing one’s opinion is still considered dangerous, if not symptomatic. Your courage, your forthrightness, and your determination motivate all of us, no matter where we live, to do–or continue doing– whatever we can. Much thanks for this post–a multi vitamin for the spirit on an otherwise murky morning here in Penn’s Woods.

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  2. You are so right. It’s actually in our best interest to do what is right. No man is an island to himself. We might become an emotional or even a financial England before WW II. It can be lonely and hard, but it is correct to reach out to others and help them, as they might help us later.

    We needed a phone so my husband could come home from his ship. I couldn’t get one. I went down to Atlanta Bell. They told me all they had was a black phone. I said-OK, I’ll take it. They said, “You don’t understand. It’s a colored phone.” I told them that I and the Navy didn’t care if it was green phone with yellow polka dots, I wanted my husband to come home. They told me that I was white. I told them, Duh-I’m Irish-of course I’m white, but I need a phone, i will get a phone or have the navy sue you. I will have a phone-white, black, pink purple.” They finally said, “You’ll be on a party line with blacks, coloreds” .I’m a southwesterner, I’m staring at them in disbelief. I told them that I didn’t care if I was on a party line with pink Martians, green spacemen, whatever-I want a phone now or I’m going to the JAG to file that you are racially discriminating against me because I’m white.

    There were some dear women that took their phones off of the hooks for hours and prayed for sinners like me.. A farmer down the road died because his wife screamed and yelled for help on the phone-useless- and tried to run where somebody could get her some help. A Black farmer found her in the road. He’d been a medic in ‘Nam. He tried to help her husband. He helped her. Then when some made rude comments to me, I asked them if they preferred to share their line with the praying women or the medic that served in ‘Nam. Some had been on a waiting list for a white phone. They went to Atlanta Bell and signed up for a colored phone. There were those that didn’t like me much, but they did like having a phone in the house.

    I’m sorry about your alma mater. I’m glad that you’re talking about it. Discrimination is a poison that affects us all. Doing the right thing, even through innocence and stupidity leaves it’s ripples and makes things better.

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