When I was younger, I was obsessed with the American Revolution. What a time to be alive, I’d fantasize, to be a part of history as it was being written, to feel like every action taken somehow contributed to our nation’s independence. How thrilling it would have been, to stand up to the bullies in the British government and help to forge a new set of rules for a brand new country.
I used to imagine myself handing out pamphlets on the streets of Philadelphia, excited by the energy of a group of people on the precipice of something disruptive and extraordinary. Who would I be, I wondered, if I lived during that formative time? What great things would I have accomplished? What would they write about me?
But then in college I took a class all about the American Revolution and learned it wasn’t exactly the idealistic, historically unifying event that I’d imagined. Instead I learned that that period of time was actually a minority movement. That’s to say, a greater number of colonists preferred keeping the status quo to the violent upheaval of the British government. Were it not for the valiant, continued efforts of a small group of now-named “founding father” revolutionaries, our country may never have been created at all.
Of course, centuries later, we don’t like to remember that pesky little detail. But the fact is, even during this formative part of American history, most people at the time just…watched. They weren’t out in the streets, they weren’t writing letters, they weren’t tossing tea off boats. They stayed home. They carried on as usual. Their stories aren’t told in history books because there’s nothing really to tell. Maybe they weren’t actively against a revolution. But they certainly weren’t all in on it, either. They were kind of…meh. Neutral, at best. British loyalists at worst.
Eventually I’ve come to accept this fact about myself. Had I lived during that time, it would have been easy to be one of them — a middle-class loyalist, committed to keeping my life exactly as it was. It would have been too risky, I might have decided, to speak out against the British government. Too inconvenient to travel to Boston to partake in a midnight dumping of tea into the harbor. Too expensive to get a hold of the revolutionary pamphlets they were handing out in cities.
And I’ll tell you, that’s a little hard to swallow. Naturally, none of us want to look at ourselves and see a harsh truth — that we might have been on the wrong side of history. That’s why, when reading any story, it’s easier to imagine ourselves aligned with the people who history later labels, “the good guys.” And so, we rationalize our version of the narrative. We look for places where our own story might have existed alongside the ones that look the best from our vantage point today. We convince ourselves that there’s no way we would have seen it any other way, even amidst the blurriness of it all back then. In a sense, we write our own version of history.
It’s always easier to hang back
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about historic movements, as I take in the social revolution happening around us. There’s dissonance, to be sure. But protests in all 50 states just might be the closest thing our country has seen to unity in a very long time. I look around and I wonder, who are our modern-day revolutionaries and leaders, the ones relentlessly driving this important initiative forward, fighting and pushing to do the right thing? And who are the loyalists, the ones satisfied in keeping the status quo exactly as it is? Then of course, I ask myself, where do I fall in that spectrum? Who am I, really?
Back in history class, I remember learning about major social movements or revolutions all over the world. First, we’d be taught the timeline of events, including the dates of major milestones or battles. Then we’d learn about people at the helm of great change and the important milestones they helped to make possible. But alongside this main narrative, history books would often also call out other important figures of each era. Maybe not the ones leading armies into battle or even the elected political figures of that time. But other notables. Local advocates. Activists. Organizers. People who rallied their friends and neighbors. People who founded new organizations, who wrote opinion pieces in their newspapers, who campaigned relentlessly for the causes they believed in. We’d read about their inventions, their initiatives, and their dreams, even some lingering promises that remain in their namesake today. Boulevards and non-profits, scholarships and libraries, hospitals and orphanages.
“So you see,” these stories seemed to tell us as kids, “No matter who you are, you can do something to make a difference. You can write a book or sew a flag or organize people on the streets. In great moments in history, the world unifies and we all find a way to pitch in and contribute however we can.”
I liked to think, if I were ever living in the midst of a massive movement, I’d step up like that, too. I imagined it’d be the obvious choice to engage, that the overwhelming tide of social change and injustice would make it easy to give up everything and re-dedicate myself to a new cause and broader mission.
Of course even this perception was pretty idealistic. Change is hard. I would have had to make dozens of trade-offs in my personal and professional life to fully engage in any cause. Leading in any form, particularly during serious times of political or social upheaval, is terrifying. I might have lost a few friends. I might have made a little less money. I might have risked my reputation, or my life, to do the right thing. These would not have been easy choices to make.
That’s why, even amidst the greatest waves and movements, there are always people hanging back, lingering on the sidelines, waiting before acting. That’s why it will always be easier to do nothing than to risk everything.
Who are you, really?
As it turns out, we are living in a revolution. This is an unprecedented time of historic change. And no matter what happens, we won’t come out the same on the other side. So perhaps it is time to each ask ourselves the hard question: Are you stepping up, or stepping out? Who are you, really?
Of course, no matter how much good intent exists, stepping up is downright hard in practice. Ideas come easy, getting them done is hard. And it’s perilously simple to rationalize cause for inaction, even today. “This isn’t a real revolution,” you might say. Or maybe: “It’s not my problem.” But that, of course, is exactly what American colonial loyalists might have said as well. What would you have said to them?
You might rationalize whatever meager effort you have already put forth as “enough,” telling yourself: “I am involved. I am donating money. I am posting on social media. I am well-read and well-networked. I’m one of ‘the good ones.’” That may be true. Or it may be simply the thing you tell yourself so you don’t have to experience any icky feelings of guilt or shame.
You might also point to other external factors to explain-away your lack of effort. “I would do more,” you might say, “If there weren’t also a pandemic going on…” After all, excuses are easy to come by. Trust me, I know. I’ve got a two-month old baby at home who requires around-the-clock attention. Even my own friends and family are reassuring me that not being more involved is “totally understandable.” But is it understandable? Is it? Who do I want to be, really?
There is no right answer. There is no perfect moment. There are no obvious choices, no easy outs, no famous future revolutionaries tugging on your sleeve to tap you in. But it doesn’t take a lot of searching to notice that there is a lot of need out there right now. And chances are, each of us has at least one unique action we might take to step up and make our mark in this moment. The only question is — what’s yours?