When I turned thirteen, I catapulted into a consciousness of horror and rage. My bubble of happy imaginary play popped, and I stared aghast at the material world surrounding me. How could adults have allowed our world to become such an atrocious mess? It was 1988, and Ronald Reagan was President; homeless families stood on sidewalks block after block holding cardboard signs asking for help. Veterans, too. How could a soldier who lost his legs defending our country be left on a curb shaking a Styrofoam cup? When Reagan bombed Libya, I burst into tears, horrified by the TV images of children injured and surrounded by rubble. Less dramatic, but disturbing in a far-reaching sense, was our country’s endeavors to drill for oil in Antarctica. As I read through various articles documenting damage to the wildlife, I felt such loss, as if this fragile continent were slipping from our world like Atlantis.
One benefit of anger is that – despite it ruining your life – it propels you into action. With my mom’s help, I did some research and set up a schedule. I began to volunteer two afternoons a week for Green Peace and one evening a week for a soup van handing out warm meals to men and women standing at designated street corners. I attended marches, wrote letters, and started up a community service organization at my high school. Rage may have stolen my ability to enjoy the world, but it could not diminish my love for it.
I’m forty-six now, and that teenage girl still waves fists and stomps along sidewalks within me. I don’t ever want to abandon her – or those she champions. Over the last decade, though, since becoming a mother, I’ve felt conflicted. I want my children joyful and carefree, not lost to the gritty emotions and anger I felt back then. I doubt I’d even let my teenaged self near my kids. I don’t teach them about current atrocities; I censor the news. I spend most of my energy taking them to the woods, playgrounds, their grandparents’ homes, birthday parties and sports games. I strive to shield them from the anger I felt and all the demise that incited it.
Helping kids have a good time is fine, but as mine grow older, I have to ask painful questions: Is it okay to cheer them on the soccer field as bombs fall on Aleppo, or another incident of police brutality towards citizens of color hits the news, or a billionaire who doesn’t support the idea of free and public education is nominated for Secretary of Education? This world doesn’t need more angry people, but as I listen to the news these first weeks of 2017, I have to ask, what is the appropriate response to what’s going on right now, other than rage? And how much of this rage do I share with my kids? Are there ways to preserve some of their innocence as they get older exactly as our world darkens?
The morning of Inauguration Day, struggling with these questions, I snuck out of the house a little before dawn to run up the road. The air was still dark, and snow swirled wet and cold against my face. Out of the pre-dawn shadows, a crowd of pretty girls in white dresses appeared before me. Boys in funeral-like attire joined them. I recognized the scene – my high school graduation, that ritual of teens crossing the divide between child and adult. Yet in this vision, the graduates exploded out of their formal attire, more volcano than human, spewing passion, rage, and despair, the very same emotions that, decades ago, flared within me.
Grow up?! Their fiery forms screamed. Venture into the world?! More explosions made their disgust impossible to deny. They didn’t create the mess; why must they inherit it?
I had no answer for these raging teens, but I could understand why I have been so protective of my children. Rage – even when justified – ruins your life. It steals your ability to savor and appreciate your own life, and then it hardens you against the lives of others. Unchecked, it kills.
What can I do to help my kids and other kids hold onto their passions without exploding? To keep caring and engaging with our world without getting eaten up by anger and giving up?
My run gave me no answers, but the next day – The Woman’s March of January 21 – did. According to reputable news sites, this march was possibly the largest worldwide protest demonstration in history. United was the march’s watchword, and people of all backgrounds, political persuasions and ages joined it, rallying together to fight back against hatred and oppression and to chant about reaching out and helping one another. What struck me the most was how many elderly men and women joined the protest. I’m used to seeing lots of babies in Bjorns at marches, people my age and lots of teenagers, but I didn’t expect so many octogenarians and even nonagenarians, many of them dependent on canes, walkers or other younger marchers to navigate the snow and ice along the sidewalks. The could have stayed at home, warm and dry. They could have watched the march on the news. Instead, they were here, with us, fighting for a world they would soon be leaving. Their presence told me that I – and all my generation, along with our children – were not alone, that our ancestors were by our side, striving like us and with us to create a fair and just society on the wildly splendid globe we shared.
What can I say to volcanic teens and to my own children about the egregious injustices of our world?
You are not alone! We will approach this mess together, we will heal what’s broken together, we will enjoy what’s sweet and golden together, we will celebrate together! I am angry, too, and you are not alone!
All my life, I’ve believed that everyone’s lifetime matters, that every thought, word and action affects the people around you and the way the social world evolves minutes by minute. As a teen, I held an elderly man’s hand as he coughed blood into a bowl. He had TB, was homeless, and he smelled terrible, and I stood by him and patted his back. Of course, I didn’t change his life, but I feel in a very small but real way my being there mattered. Some days back then I’d feel reluctant to get myself to the homeless shelter where I volunteered, but I always knew I needed to do it. Nowadays, I get the same feeling about volunteering in my kids’ elementary school. It’s a difficult duty in many ways – I need to find someone to watch over my two year old, I lose hours of billable time, my list of undone-items looms!
But really, what’s more important than connecting with a kid? What’s more important than helping where help is needed? Feeling helpless leads to feeling hopeless, and this downward slide is a terrible experience. Adrenalin courses through the body with no release, and the drama of fight or flight ends in collapse. Too quickly, a passionate heart becomes a diseased one, then a dead one.
I choose to live. And I choose to help my children live – to rage, cry, sing, dance, love and fight. I cannot save their innocence, but I can work with them to save the world we share.