I’m from the South, so I know a little about evangelism.
When I was in eighth grade, a boy I liked asked me if I wanted to go on a hayride for Halloween. “I’d love to,” I said, even though I was allergic to hay.
“It’s sponsored by my church,” he said.
I didn’t care; I thought we might get to hold hands anyway, even if my eyes were swollen shut. The day came; I wore leggings and a dress from the Limited sale rack — too big for me, but they were clothes that made me feel grown-up. I don’t remember the first part of the afternoon, just that it was sunny, not quite cold, and that my best friend was there with another boy. We sat on hay bales while the boys compared their basketball shoes, and discussed the strangely competitive church basketball league with the swagger of barely pubescent boys whose universe was a small tobacco town. I admired them with the devotion of a pale-haired, barely pubescent girl whose universe was a small tobacco town.
Soon the youth minister — we’ll call him Steve — gathered the young people into a dim room in a farmhouse. We sat cross-legged on a harsh rug, half-reverent and overly aware of whom we were sitting next to. I was already starting to sniffle from the hay.
“I want you to close your eyes,” he said. Steve was skinny and his eyes brimmed with passion that made me uncomfortable. The rumor was that Steve wore a hairpiece — it was a curly hairpiece — and I was afraid of him, so I did exactly what I was told. He loomed over us. We bowed our heads.
“I want you to raise your hand if you’ve accepted Jesus Christ into your life.”
Now as much as I like doing as I’m told, I also like being honest, and I was working these gray and murky things out for myself, so I didn’t raise my hand. I was unsure, between camps.
Apparently I was the only one.
Steve waved the group out toward the hayride, but pointed to me. “Megan — is that your name?” he said. “Can you stay here with me?”
Lesson learned: If you choose the wrong moment to express your beliefs, or your lack of clear beliefs, you’re the one who has to sit on the bench next to the youth minister with the hairpiece while your friends go on a hayride. He calls your beloved, but apparently inferior, minister “Brother so and so.” And then he tells you that you’re headed down the wrong path, a dark and restless path, and because you’re in eighth grade and afraid of dark and restless paths and his curly hairpiece and his hand on your leg, you cry — and can’t stop crying until you get home to your mom. And then your boyfriend realizes that although you masquerade as a goody-two-shoes ballerina, you have a darker soul than he expected, and, although this is in fact true, you don’t want anyone to know it.
Fast-forward 20 years and we’re nearly all armchair activists with fewer mysteries, our beliefs and passions often neatly aligned with Facebook likes, pages and categories. We have no shortage of platforms for our polemics and positions. And if you’re anything like me, you’re proud to identify with your ideological heroes and causes. If my friends know I like Wham!, Hillary Clinton and heritage chicken breeds, fine. If you’re anything like me, a small percentage of your social media feed provides anthropological insight into how the “enemy” thinks, and you read their posts with intrigue, knowing they probably dismiss your heartfelt think-posts with the same eye-roll. If you’re anything like me, you’re also prone to ill-timed bouts of righteousness.
Just the other week my friends showed me a picture of themselves standing arm-in-arm on an unnaturally green golf course, a picture someone had captioned “spending time in nature.”
“A golf course isn’t nature!” I spat, my vitriol catching them — and me — unaware. “Golf courses are saturated in biocides!”
I instantly knew I’d chosen a weird moment to take a stand, and worse than that, I’d taken a shrill and ineffective stand. I hadn’t changed anyone’s mind about pesticides, I’d simply offended people I care about — at no net gain.
I bump up against this decision point all the time. To speak up or stay quiet? Take, for example, the weddings I’ve been to where the language clearly implies a submissive marriage contract, subservient wifedom. I seethe and hyperventilate and dig my fingers into my husband’s leg, but I know it’s not the moment to climb the banquet table and quote “The Second Sex.” Or is it?
There’s the neighbor liberally spraying Monsanto Round-up products across his lawn. A friend going on about delicious foie gras, or another ordering unsustainably caught fish like cod at dinner. There’s the vocal climate change denier in the general store, gregariously holding forth on global warming as a hoax as he tops off his coffee.
Or my family, sitting at the dinner table. Someone has gotten takeout, a Styrofoam container of chicken wings, and orange-hued oil is collecting underneath the waxy-looking, non-organic, non-humanely sourced wings. And my two toddlers want to eat them. They look to me for permission. I grit my teeth and nod. Sure. Yes. OK.
They see delicious, steaming-hot chicken and I see cheap, abused bird carcass shot through with antibiotics, a dead bird sourced from a factory farm. I’m watching my beautiful children suck the last bits of greasy chicken off of bones and they love it. They L-O-V-E it. They’re blissed out and I’m picking restlessly at my salad, thinking about air pollution, bacteria and animal cruelty. I’m biting my tongue and everyone around me knows why.
Fortunately, we can’t go far in life without engaging with those who think differently than we do. I remember a conversation I had once with a historic preservationist. I was worried about the way my home state of North Carolina was hemorrhaging farmland and historic houses, sacrificing our agricultural heritage and food production capability for strip malls. This woman leaned forward and said nonchalantly, “The best thing we can do is work more closely with Wal-Mart.”
I tried to keep my head from keeling into an Exorcist head spin. Wal-Mart. You mean the enemy. You mean the mega-chain putting local stores out of business, paying employees low wages, repeatedly violating the Clean Water Act, and chomping up farmland? I still struggle with the idea that big impact often requires big compromise — like an environmental organization taking a fat check from an oil company — but compromise mandates that we “enemies” learn how to talk to each other in productive ways.
When passion flares, it’s hard to honor the complexity of the moment, let alone the complexity and nuances of the position. Taking a stand, and responding to one, is a form of criticism, an exchange that many of us are ill-prepared for. There is the art of delivering feedback and the art of receiving it, and I’ve found one is easier than the other.
I often remind myself of one of the big lessons fiction writers have to learn: Characters are usually neither fully good, nor fully bad. This complexity is human; it’s what activists have to work with in ourselves and our detractors, picking through ego, bias, passion and good intentions. It’s easier to throw hate bombs across the Internet from our pixelated bunkers instead of engaging in the real flow, the give and take, the hard moments that require all the sapience we have, the admission that each of us lives imperfectly and must cede ground at one moment or another.
But haven’t environmentalists ceded enough ground?
On one hand, I subscribe to the Hume-ean idea that one should be wary of certitude, that there is no perfect knowledge; that I can rarely be secure in my righteousness. At the same time, I think our planet as we know it is dying and we’re letting it, and this anxiety and passion trumps etiquette for me. It simply has to.
I have never handled political canvassers and door-to-door evangelists well, and to live in the urban South, as I did for a while, is to endure wave after wave of pamphlet-waving zealots.
Realization: I too am a pamphlet-waving zealot, taken to the Internet. So many of us are. So are we going to plug our ears and yell “get off my lawn” when we disagree, or get our hands dirty in the mess of values-oriented conversation?
* * *
Back to the dinner table.
My eldest daughter is nibbling on a brown, bare chicken bone and I’m in the throes of a mental monologue about environmental stakes, the cost of pleasure.
First, I might say to my daughter, you must realize that you’re imperfect, everyone is, but you must never let awareness of this imperfection get in the way of trying to do the right thing. Just keep trying.
I want to tell her that the world makes arbitrary distinctions about the way it treats other forms of life, human to human, human to animal, and doing the right thing will almost always be the hard thing. You might find yourself one of five people holding protest signs on a North Carolina highway getting hit in the head with aluminum cans filled with tobacco wads and spit. Maybe you’re a fool, maybe you’re a martyr, but all an idealist can do is go with her gut — that’s all you have, your gut — and you must remember that it’s not what you like on Facebook that makes you an activist, but what you do. To be an activist you can’t just click and posture but you must also act — and sometimes that means saying and doing something unpopular. I want to tell her that radical voices redefine the center and create new waves of pressure on what’s considered moderate, and that’s how America changes. And then part of America will call you a deluded hippie high on kale — just say “thank you.”
And you have to remember that the Hummer-driving kid with his cap on backward who throws the McDonald’s bag out of his car window onto our lawn every week has the same right to an opinion as you do, and one day you might have to talk to each other.
And in fact maybe I’m going to show you how this works and say what I’m thinking, now, at the dinner table. I’m going to hold up a hand, muster a weak smile and say, “No, that’s enough, no more cheap industrial chicken wings tonight.”
Because I am the mom. I am the decider. I am filled with righteousness like the youth minister Steve, the desire to shape those who sit underneath me on the hierarchy of age and power.
But my daughter’s arm is extended, her fingers opening and closing; her gut has already spoken. It wants what it wants — another greasy chicken wing.