When I was 10, I wanted to be baptised in the Baptist church that I attended. The pastor declined. So I arranged a meeting with him, and asked how it could be that I was morally accountable for my actions, and yet not capable of understanding the implications of baptism? I was baptised in a swimming pool in the middle of winter. That decision continues to benefit me today.
When I was in my early twenties, I was part of a group that enjoyed witty banter. They enjoyed making fun of certain aspects of my personality and skill set (I forget the details, I only remember that it hurt). I was never quick enough to put them in their place the way they put me in mine. Until one day.
“That’s not funny.”
“Ah, come on, it’s only a bit of a joke.”
“Then how come I’m not laughing?”
I still use that lesson today, gauging my words and the words of others by the impact they have. Never assuming that just because I find it funny, it is actually funny. (This is a necessary filter – I have an extraordinarily dark sense of humour. I blame South Africa.)
When I was in my mid-to-late twenties, I was rebuilding my life after epilepsy medication and its side effects had cost me two years. I was being intentional about it – putting myself in places that I believed would be safe, and where I would be able to build good, healthy relationships. I attended a group meeting of young people once a week. They took to mocking me about my epilepsy, and the occasional memory lapses I was still suffering. The leaders watched it happen, and said nothing. I went back, week after week, every time hoping it would be different. It never was. Eventually, I spoke up.
“Would you say these things about me if I was in a wheelchair?”
Embarrassed silence from all the teasers.
“We were wondering when you would say something,” observed the leaders.
“I could say the same thing about you. That’s your job,” I replied.
Here’s the thing. I say what needs to be said because it needs to be said. In any of the above situations, I could have just walked away quietly into the night, choosing not to hold a grudge, taking my own unique brand of humanity somewhere else, somewhere where it would be appreciated. But that’s not who I am. I don’t mean to be confrontational. I don’t mean to be difficult. I just look at situations and think, “We can do better than this.” And say so. Because what does anybody gain by my walking away quietly into the night?
My challenge to the pastor enabled him to view young people in a different light. It meant that countless other young people were able to come forward and be baptised, a decision that I believe would have a lasting impact on their lives. My other challenges that I describe above gave people the opportunity to re-evaluate their standards of acceptable behaviour. In one case, we were able to continue the relationship, but not always.
Of course, people can (and do) get upset when I speak out. But some people are relieved. Sometimes I am speaking out to say “you deserve better than this, you are worth more than this.” Sometimes, I speak out to say, “I believe in you. I know you can do it.” And then people walk out into the world a little stronger, a little surer, and go and make the world a better place.
I speak out about purpose, because we live in a world determined to kill our dreams. It can be dangerous to think that you might be able to do something, have an impact, make a difference. I know when I speak about purpose I am shouting against the wind, but somebody has to.
I speak out about acceptance, because I know its power. I know what it is be truly accepted. I know what it is to be truly tolerated. I know the difference it makes when I can be truly accepting. I’m a socially inept, over-analytical writer who occasionally gets over-excited. I live on the fringes of whatever group I am with, and yet people find it easy to talk to me. People tell me things, ask me things. Because they know that they are accepted, because they know that I will tell them not what they want to hear, but what they need to hear.
I say what needs to be said because it needs to be said. That does make me thick-skinned (I’m not). When I write, or speak, I don’t just address the here and now. I am trying to build for the future. I take the long term perspective. I see the difference that a few words can make. If you think back on your own life, it is often the few words that change the direction your life takes. The “I love you” or the “you can’t do that”. I see what the dripping tap of ten years of “I’m right, therefore you’re wrong” can do. I am a dreamer and I paint a very vivid picture of how the world can be, and hope that will be enough to motivate you to do something. Of course I would be willing to walk every step of that journey with you, but you should be warned.
You’re not going to like everything that I say.