In junior high, I once jumped off a table Wonder Woman-style (but without bullet-proof bracelets) to defend another child from being teased. I don’t remember why I was perched on a table in art class, but I do remember the drama of leaping between this bully and his victim. Without hesitating, I knew I had the power to stop the harassment. And I did. At that moment, my nonprofit heart was born.
Although this defining incident taught me I could make a difference, I can remember always being concerned with whatever seemed unfair, inequitable, or just plain stupid: “Why do people litter? Why would people say ugly things because of the color of someone’s skin? Why are some people so rich and other people so poor? And why doesn’t my family ever go on vacation?”
“Life’s not fair,” my mother would say.
“Well, then,” I’d think, “somebody needs to get busy and make it fair!”
At some point, I decided I’d have to fix unfair stuff myself, since too many people didn’t seem to care as much as I did about world problems. At times, I’d get so mad about poverty, racism, sexism, or religious bigotry that I’d feel like punching someone. Since I was raised to be a “good girl,” punching people for prejudice didn’t follow. And as a teenager who volunteered for Special Olympics and adopted the beagle next door when his owner abandoned him, I suspected the part of me that shook my fist—or wagged my finger—at all things stupid and unfair made me no better than anyone else.
Until graduate school, I didn’t have a name for “mimetic violence” (imitating what you claim to hate), but I did get the insanity (i.e. hypocrisy) of hitting people to stop the act of hitting. It just took me awhile to actually learn that lesson.
When I was a young teen, for example, my twin sister and a girlfriend would pass around a football during lunch hour. Inevitably (and happily) boys would steal our football from us. We’d pretend to be mad, but we actually loved trying to get the football back. Once, though, a large boy roughly tackled me. I’d seen him do this to others before. I’d had enough. So even though he was two times my size, I hurled myself right at him until I bounced off his giant torso. Although he must have barely felt me hit his chest, I was satisfied I’d made my point: “Don’t mess with me! And stop hurting people!”
During high school, I bought a hand-painted plaque that I proudly hung on my pink bedroom wall. It read, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way!” My self-righteous heart loved this in-your-face message. And yet, for all my righteousness—then and now—the young person I was genuinely longed to see more people committed to ending injustice.
Not surprisingly, this naïve, youthful view was limited by my equally limited knowledge—and respect—for what other people had done, and were doing, to improve the quality of life for their fellow human beings with love, rather than hostility.
Now, as a middle-aged woman working in the nonprofit sector, I clearly see millions of people working peacefully and tirelessly at local, national, and international levels to make the world a better place for everyone. My grown-up, nonprofit heart is profoundly grateful.
Originally published September 20, 2011 at blog.lodestar.asu.edu