Being an upstander–someone who stands up, who speaks out, and/or who takes action on behalf of others–is noble. It’s commendable. It’s the right way to be.
Being an upstander is also freaking hard.
Let’s face it: standing up to injustice is tough. Speaking up about something you know is wrong is scary. It makes your voice shake, your cheeks flush, your heart beat like it wants nothing more than to escape your physical self. It causes unsightly pit stains.
Upstanders are painfully uncool. We talk to ourselves in the shower, rehearse righteous speeches in the car, and draft letters and blog posts we sometimes fail to send. Despite what others might think, we despise conflict. We get all clammy at the thought of someone being “mad” at us. We much prefer to fade into the background, to live in peace. To read our magazines with our feet up, a cold beverage at our side. But something deep within us prevents us from relaxing, from finding mental rest for longer than a few precious moments. Something prevents us from going about our lives being “blissfully ignorant.”
Upstanders are imperfect. We pick and choose what we speak out about. Sadly, we ignore some issues that desperately need a wider audience. We feel guilty about this, but we could not exist otherwise. We could not be loving, successful parents, partners, or professionals. As it is, we struggle with being all of these things. Sometimes we downright suck at it.
Sometimes people think upstanders are overly angry. They accuse us of beating a dead horse. Of being unable to “let things lie.” One time, someone who was being completely sincere asked me if I am ever able to “just relax” and allow myself to be entertained. (I had been remarking on how often I’m compelled to point out to my daughters how so many movie previews seem to be about “boys and their stories.”) More than once, I have been pleaded with to “play in the sandbox.” To “go along to get along.”
But I can’t. I am physically, mentally, emotionally unable to “go along to get along.”
And it sucks, to be honest. I sometimes feel like a total curmudgeon. A pessimist. A bitch. I may be all of those things (although I would argue that I’m more realist than pessimist), but I am also, for the most part, a really happy person. I’m funny. Most people who know me well think I have a warm personality. I’m hella privileged, too, and that irony is not lost on me.
When we talk to students about being “upstanders,” we don’t often talk about privilege–about the fact that the vast majority of upstanders have an abundance of love and hope and support in their lives. Many of us have, if not an abundance of physical riches, a pretty steady stream of emotional riches. We have (perhaps foolishly) convinced ourselves that some people–the ones who matter, anyway–will still love and support us no matter what we do or say. That’s privilege.
So when we ask children to reach out, to seek help, and to speak up, we have to be honest with them. We must acknowledge the privilege that often, in one way or another, goes hand in hand with being an upstander. We must also –at least on some level– acknowledge the fear, the isolation, and (sometimes) the downright suckiness that comes with it. Because while there’s a lot of good that comes from being an upstander–a healthy dose of camaraderie, the occasional smattering of applause, and above all, that small sliver of knowledge that YOU are making a difference–if my own experience is any indication, it’s the bad stuff that sticks.