I’m a quiet person who doesn’t generally like to make waves. I prefer having a routine but enjoy an occasional adventure. I shy away from conflict but sometimes throw caution to the wind and take a stand. Like most people my days are mostly devoid of drama and I prefer it that way. In spite of my efforts to walk the middle road and keep the peace there have been times when I have felt compelled to speak my mind. Life has a way of placing us in situations that demand our attention whether we desire to become involved or not.
When I was nineteen years old my mother had the first of many psychotic breakdowns. I had never seen anything like her frightening behavior in all of my life. With no father and younger brothers still incapable of navigating the rough seas of caring for someone with a mental illness I was on my own. I still was not of legal age but I had to quickly learn how to make decisions on behalf of my mother and my family. The biggest mistake that I made on the first occasion of her illness was maintaining total respect for and deference to the doctor who treated my mom. I agreed to whatever he suggested even when my heart and soul told me that he was wrong. I had been raised to be polite and my gentle demeanor resulted in a series of decisions that I would always regret.
I’m a fast learner and when my mother’s next psychiatric episode occurred I was ready to take on the devil himself if need be. I was assertive with her new doctor and everyone else involved in her care. I became an outspoken advocate for her and her cause. My life and my personality changed forever. I finally understood that we may not wish to do so but sometimes we are forced to speak out for what we strongly believe is right and just. For each of us the causes that we embrace are highly personal, derived from life experiences that somehow made an indelible mark on our hearts. While others may believe that they understand our motivations the reality is that nobody else will ever completely know exactly how we feel.
I was judged for the way I handled my mother’s mental illness by people who had not walked in my shoes and who had turned away when I asked them to help me. Some people see me as a saint and others quietly whisper that I did more harm to my mom than good in the choices that I made. It is difficult for people to understand that even when I made mistakes or did things differently than they would have my motives were pure. My mother now rests with the angels in heaven but to this very day I speak of her life changing illness and the way I tried to help her without apology. I want the world to be aware of mental illness. I feel the need to open people’s eyes even when doing so makes them intensely uncomfortable. Honesty and a willingness to speak of the horror that my mother and my family endured is the only way that I may help to one day bring about a cure or at least a better way of dealing with this very real problem.
Mental illness is my cause along with education. These are the topics that I hold dear and I am thankful that I live in a time and place that allows me to voice my thoughts and opinions. My audience is small so my ideas are not nearly as impactful as I would like for them to be. I am one of many nameless faces in the world shouting in the wilderness. I would love to have a status so recognizable that my ideas would become news. Then perhaps my words might actually make a difference but for now I must be content with changing one mind at a time in a very tiny circle.
There are famous people with causes who have the power to move larger audiences. Glenn Close has become a beacon of hope for those of us who know the tragedy of mental illness. George Clooney is an outspoken advocate for human rights. Gary Sinise has devoted time and treasure to the Wounded Warrior Project. We usually applaud such efforts because they fall within the boundaries of our comfort zones. It is only when one of our heroes chooses to make us aware of something that we would rather ignore that we begin to make judgements about them that are not always fair.
Until recently I had no idea who Colin Kaepernick was. I don’t live in San Francisco and I don’t care that much about football. In all likelihood I would have gone my entire life without ever even hearing his name were it not for a moment when he chose to shine a light on something that bothers him as much as mental illness bothers me. His method for drawing attention to his cause was to remain seated during the playing of the national anthem. Some of those who witnessed his protest have gone ballistic in criticizing him both for that action and for the reasons that he has given for them.
The reality is that he has managed to do something remarkable. He has started a conversation about our rights as citizens of this country. Regardless of which side people espouse they are chattering away which is exactly what he hoped to accomplish. The problems that worried him are out in the open. He has shed a bright light on an uncomfortable topic and has done so with the possibility of damaging his reputation and his livelihood. That takes great courage, the kind that few of us, myself included, possess.
Mr. Kaepernick wants us to notice that a significant portion of our populace lives in fear of law enforcement. He wants us to understand that even a young black man raised by white parents is not immune to the forces of racism that still exist in some quarters of our country. He insists that in spite of education and success he and other black men and women endure the sting of hate simply because of the color of their skin. Whether we totally agree with him or not we have to admit that we have never walked in his world. We will never be able to know his reality. We must take him at his word and then begin to consider how we might begin to exchange honest dialogue about the situation that he has described.
Whether or not Colin Kaepernick stands for our national anthem is irrelevant. Our Constitution provides him with the right to rebel just as our forefathers did when they believed that they were living under a yoke of tyranny. Their actions were seemingly outrageous but they were cries for liberty. Theirs was a noble cause that sadly ended without assurances for a considerable portion of the citizenry. Over time we have slowly but surely attempted to correct their omissions. Traditions should never be so sacred that we allow them to stand when they are so obviously flawed. We had to outlaw slavery and give the vote to blacks and women. We had to find ways to include everyone in this great democratic experiment. Even to this day it is incumbent on all of us to correct the mistakes of the past. If so many who live among us are feeling so left out of our national pride then we need to take the time to hear them and to accept that they may know something that we don’t
I believe that we the people need to suspend our moral outrage each time someone alerts us to a festering problem. If King George had taken the time to listen to the protests of the colonists we might still be part of Great Britain. We need to stop the name calling and the madness. It does absolutely nothing to help in dealing with the issues. It is a diversion, a distraction that keeps us from hearing all sides of the discussions that we need to have. Perhaps what we really should do is simply listen to Mr. Kaepernick and celebrate that we are a country where freedom allows each of us to have an opinion. We have the opportunity to be part of the ongoing solution of mankind’s deepest problems. If we truly want to honor our country we will lower our voices and join in an effort to understand our disparate needs. It is our glorious cause.