An odd thing happened today. I read a post by John Pavlovitz, which resulted in me reading the tag line on his blog: Things That Need to Be Said. What was odd is I had just decided on my own tag line an hour before, and his was so similar to the one I was embracing as my own: Things I Can’t Not Say. More about that in a moment.
For a long time I’ve been a writer, which simply means I’ve been a person who can’t not write. It’s something I have to do. I feel miserable when I don’t, but I’ve never found a subject to settle down with. I’ve tried several on for size, have been told some of them looked good on me, and have found a number of people willing to come dance with my words, but something was never quite there. I think that thing was honesty.
In a recent episode of This American Life, they did a story about a famous French comedian who decided to give up the success he’d grown bored with in his native land and try his luck at making it as a performer in the U.S. He was getting mediocre results and the producers of the show asked some successful American comics to critique his act. One critique stood out to me, and it was one that stood out to him as well. It was in the form of a question. Comic Jeff Garland asked, “What does he really care about? That’s what I’m interested in knowing.”
The comedian took this question to heart, admitted the things that mattered most to him never found their way into his act, and, at the time of the broadcast, he was slowly and entirely revamping it. A good question can make you do things like that when you’re ready to hear it and give it a proper answer.
What do you really care about? What do you really, really care about? What do you love so much it’s embarrassing? What do hate so much you want to smash it? What is there that really gets under your skin, that makes you want to stand up and fight or sit down and write? What problem do you want to shed a light on? What question do you have to know the answer to? What thing do you have to find a way to do or it’s simply going to eat you from the inside out?
It’s not like I’ve never been asked these questions, but Inever really answered them truthfully. I know what things I think I’m supposed to care about, but to be gut honest about the things you really do can lead to scary things. You may have to give up being loved by everyone, or at least the fantasy that you were or ever could be. You may have to confess who you really are and admit who you’ve never been, and that will mean taking off the mask you’ve been wearing for most of your life. And you know that doing that means some will feel dismayed, disappointed, or betrayed. Some will sever ties with you. Some may want to do you harm. Some might even want to see you dead.
The fear of that possibility or certainty can paralyze you, bully you into silence, and leave you clutching your mask with both hands to make sure your true face stays hidden. But if there’s any part of you that’s an artist or a poet or someone who simply yearns to go some place deeper than you’ve gone before, the paralysis and silence feel very much like death.
You’ve always known what you really care about. You’ve just never been willing to be honest about it because lying can be so much easier. It’s just not all that fulfilling. You keep trying to play a part you’ve never felt comfortable playing in order to get along, but you find you’re not getting along with yourself. And the truth is I’ve never been very good at any of it. I never fool anyone in the end. People who get to know me know exactly what things I care about. I drive them nuts with the stuff.
I can’t not talk about them.
I try. Over and over I try, and I try to talk about acceptable things. Normal things. Pretty things. Things that keep everyone comfortable. I try talking about the weather. I try talking about what little I know about sports. I try pretending I want to rise to the top of some organization I’m currently working for as I struggle to hold my mask in place and find myself craving a stiff drink and a nap of indefinite length.
But the minute someone opens the door to a conversation about topics I really care about, I suddenly come alive. I can do that shit for days.
The only trouble is the things I want to talk about are the things so many people tell you not to: race, religion, politics, injustice, social issues, scientific and cultural debate, or just about anything where emotions can run high because a vast divide runs jaggedly through the middle of them. But, to me, those are the most important things people can talk about. Those issues sit at the edge of the search for what’s true and just and beautiful, which means being willing to talk about what isn’t, and my experience has been that many folks would rather you not and some will do whatever they can to stop you.
These things that matter are often the things the powerful or those who want to be powerful try to keep you from speaking honestly about. They’ll use every trick they have to silence you if you oppose them. I don’t think you should let that happen. Allow them to have their say because 1) you’re not infallible and 2) you can’t allow them to turn you into them, but you can’t let them bully and shame you into silence. To do that is to let them erase you.
For me, these things rise up and pound on the walls of my brain. Say something, fool. Don’t let them get away with that. Don’t let them make you a coward. Never give a bully a break.
Right or wrong, these things become the Things I Can’t Not Say.
Questions I can’t help asking. Observations I can’t help making. Criticisms of arguments I can’t help criticizing. Rants about things I can’t help protesting. Gushy stuff about things I can’t help gushing about. I find I can’t not say them.
I’ve wasted a lot of years berating myself for being “distracted” by these things. Don’t you have other things to write about? This is just going to piss people off. Write about something less confrontational. Keep it all warm and fuzzy.
But who, you eventually have to ask, are you keeping things warm and fuzzy for? Who are you working to keep comfortable?
Are you keeping bigots comfortable while the people they degrade and oppress continue to suffer? Are you keeping anti-vaxers comfortable as a disease we once had under control makes its way back and takes the lives of more defenseless children? Are you keeping the rich and powerful comfortable while the poor struggle to make it through another day?
Are you keeping yourself comfortable because you’re too big a coward to speak up or speak more clearly? Are you afraid of working to have your voice and the voices of others heard by a larger number of people because you know what happens when you do? Because you know they’ll come out of the woodwork, because you know how exhausting it can be, because you know you have more to learn if you’re going to be equipped to deal with it, because you know you’ll have to stretch and grow, because you know you’ll eventually be pushed to do more than you’re currently doing? Wouldn’t it be easier to just enjoy your collection of likes on Facebook instead of taking your licks out in the open?
Who are you keeping comfortable? And why should you or anyone else get to feel so comfortable when so many others are anything but? Will you ever be truly comfortable with that little bird pecking at you each and every day?
You already know the answer. These are the things you can’t not say, the things you actually care about but have primarily been saying under your breath, in deep and quiet conversations with people you trust, and in a few safe places here and there.
But if you really care, it’s time for you to say them out loud. Comfortable just doesn’t cut it anymore.
Photograph: Microphone by drestwn on Flickr