By Troy Headrick
Many who regularly read this blog are interested in self-reflection, personal growth, mindfulness, spirituality, psychology, and topics of this sort. Often, when discussing these things, the writers of these blogs focus on the individual. They might begin by narrating a personal anecdote and then use that experience to examine a larger, more universal theme. Today, I want do things a little differently. I want to examine the individual, not in isolation, but as a member of a society and a polity, and argue that no one can become fully self-actualized (or happy or “whole” or however you want to phrase it) unless that person situates herself in a larger, social and political context and realizes that she has certain responsibilities to those who populate her milieu.
This blog was inspired by an act of horrible injustice and its aftermath. On May 25, 2020, a man named George Floyd was killed in broad daylight when a nineteen-year-veteran of the Minneapolis, Minnesota, police department, a man named Derek Chauvin, aided by three other officers, knelt on George’s neck for nearly nine minutes, thus fatally asphyxiating him. This murder was filmed via mobile phone and is available on the internet. I will not watch the entire video because I know it will emotionally destroy me. The bits and pieces I’ve seen have wounded me deeply.
Some might feel that I’m committing a kind of faux paus by openly talking about a controversial societal, cultural, and political topic in a public setting. Back when I was active on Facebook—I still have a Facebook page, though I have long wanted to close it, but my wife implores me not to do so as a way of staying connected with her Egyptian family—there was this unspoken rule that people in my family and among my network of friends never made posts that could be deemed controversial because doing so would be seen as a demonstration of “bad manners.” So, people posted videos of puppies and kittens and such but never would touch anything political.
Unfortunately, many people like to avoid discussing topics that make them uncomfortable and stay silent as a way of not making waves. Some refer to this as going along to get along. When I hear people making such comments or when I watch them keep their mouths closed to avoid ruffling feathers, I’m immediately reminded of the saying, attributed to John Stuart Mill, a proponent of utilitarianism and someone I studied in both undergrad and grad school, that “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” Silence, in other words, creates an atmosphere where acts of exploitation and violence can flourish because they go unopposed.
How can I be the best version of myself when unjust things happen and yet I keep myself ignorant of these things—playing the role of ostrich with its head in the sand—or know about them but avert my gaze because I don’t want to experience the hassle of getting involved? Remaining apathetic and ignorant takes no effort and certainly is the easy way out. But when has repeatedly taking the easy way out and not looking closely at things and thinking about their meaning and implications ever led to any sort of intellectual, spiritual, or emotional growth? Ignorance and apathy don’t lead to growth; they stunt. Averting one’s gaze and staying mum is an act of irresponsibility and, dare I say it, cowardice. We grow by being engaged and doing the right thing even when it’s inconvenient to do so.
I want to finish with a brief discussion of patriotism. Patriotism is the act of being proud of (or of showing love for) the place one comes from. It is impossible for a person to be patriotic and apathetic at the same time. If a man claims to love his wife, he cannot demonstrate his affection by being indifferent to her. Indifference and apathy are incompatible with love.
I think it goes without saying that we are social and political beings whether we like it or not. Some try to divorce themselves from politics and current events, which requires that they remain aloof and disengaged. Abraham Maslow, a great thinker who gained notoriety during the last century, argued that the most self-actualized individuals are those who see themselves as members of a “human family” and actively learn (and care) about what’s taking place in the world and the pain others are feeling. Self-actualized people are, in other words, profoundly empathetic.
I hope this sparks a wonderful conversation, and I look forward to being a participant.
Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.
Header photo by Richard Clyborne of Music Strive