A few years ago I sat in a crowded auditorium listening to a speaker lecture on a topic I don’t remember. What I do remember is that fifteen minutes into his lecture, he was interrupted by an audience member who jumped to his feet and, under the guise of asking a question, began to harangue the speaker. The speaker, who was elderly and softspoken, was clearly stunned at the interruption, which had clearly been planned. The audience member grew taller and louder as he launched into his own, counterpoint lecture. He gesticulated. He menaced.
Everyone in the room was instantly on edge, disturbed and deeply uneasy. You could feel the tension in the air. We looked at each other, wild-eyed: What do we do? What should we do? No one moved. But something had to be done. So I jumped up and waved my hand until the angry audience member saw me and paused for a second.
“Excuse me, but your original question has nothing to do with your comments,” I said. “Please sit down.”
This was someone not used to being challenged. He didn’t know what to do with my interruption. He started questioning me, in annoyance and surprise, lost his train of thought, fumbled, sat down.
It sounds like such a simple thing, but interrupting this man was extremely hard for me. My heart raced and my hands trembled and I couldn’t stop shaking. But my mission –to put a stick in the spokes of the runaway heckler– was accomplished.
This incident, and others like it, comes back to me a lot these days. We have so much more power, as a group and also as a single human being, than we think we do. People take their cues from leaders, and every day I remind myself that I can be a leader. That I am a leader. Every single one of us is, if we choose to be.
We are surrounded right now with daily assaults, some of them deadly, to human decency and our sense of our country as a functioning democracy. In the midst of this, it helps to remind yourself that you are a leader. Leaders act more often than react. Acting out of optimism, hope, faith and determination to make this world better will give you far more energy than reacting with despair and outrage to every day’s fresh hell.
What I tell myself: Alison, there are too many fresh hells right now to handle, so don’t try to handle them all. But every single time there’s a chance to be kind, to stop a bully, to thwart a racist or sexist remark, to look someone in the eye and smile, to take positive action, do it.
Concrete actions that are helping me right now:
In-depth conversations with people who believe differently from me but who remind me that we have far more in common than our voting records.
Hand-writing postcards to get out the vote.
Teaching creative writing classes on the Transformation of Trauma for free.
Distributing poems to all my neighbors.
Donating money, a little every day, to a good cause.
Reading: history, novels, poetry.
History is full of examples of leaders who fomented violence and hate wherever they went, with deadly consequences. We are seeing that right now in our own country. But violence and hate can be counteracted at every turn. Take action. Don’t lose the faith.