Courage and activism

Confrontation is not one of my strong suits. Some people are really good at this — tackling problematic people head-on with confidence and grace. I’ve usually been more nervous about it, and haven’t taken always taken action even when I wanted to or knew that I should.

About ten years ago, I was at a stop light in Richmond, Virginia, when I saw the driver in the car ahead of me toss a cigarette out her window onto the pavement. I’m not sure what spurred me to action that day, but before I knew it, I was out of my car. I strode forward, picked up the discarded cigarette and handed it back to the driver.

“Here,” I said calmly. “I think you dropped this.”

That might sound silly, but I like to give people the benefit of the doubt — and I like to give people a graceful way out. Unfortunately, this lady didn’t take it. As soon as my back was turned, she tossed the cigarette out the window again.

So, again, I walked up to her car window, bent down to pick up the cigarette and handed it back to her. The driver looked up at me, confused.

“I live here, too,” I said to her. “This is littering. Knock it off.”

When I got back to my car, my heart was pounding in my chest. I was both amazed that I’d actually done something rather than sitting in my car watching yet another person litter, and I was horrified that perhaps I’d handled it wrong or embarrassed someone. (I was raised in the South. I’m always worried about what other people think and feel.)

But I also knew that other drivers and passengers at the same intersection had witnessed what had happened. They’d seen someone take action rather than ignoring the situation, like we all usually do. That made me feel a lot better.

When I told a few friends about this, however, reactions were mixed. Most were proud of me, but at least two people pointed out that my actions could have gotten me shot. There are a lot of guns in Virginia.

I had another such opportunity this morning — which had me standing in the path of a speeding car that was tearing through my quiet neighborhood, running stop signs, and which left me with that same feeling of pride at having done the right thing — and dread, because even though I look graceful under fire, I certainly don’t feel it.

In other words, I’m historically not much of an activist. I don’t have the same courage that inspires the people on those Greenpeace boats putting themselves between whaling ships and their prey. I’ve never come anywhere close to chaining myself to an old growth tree and standing in the way of bulldozers — and not just because I don’t hear about these protests until after the fact.

My convictions give me words, and that’s one reason I keep writing and blogging about sustainability. It’s why I keep speaking out against intolerance, even if from the relative safety of my desk rather than out in the streets.

But there are other kinds of activism, that don’t involve putting oneself in physical danger or in direct confrontation with heavy machinery or harpoons. There are trail building parties to restore hiking paths and protect native vegetation. There are river clean up efforts that have volunteers floating downstream in rafts and kayaks to collect litter — I’ve done that one; it’s hard work, but it’s a lot of fun. There are bicycle parades to promote alternative transportation and reduced emissions. And much more.

So the next time I’m feeling powerless, I’ll just remember the many green volunteer opportunities waiting right outside my door. Because, frankly, standing in front of a speeding car and nearly getting myself and my dog run over is not something I want to do every day.

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