Shhh… do you hear something?

I don’t know if you share this experience, but sometimes it seems like everything I’m reading, every conversation I have, points in the same direction, toward the same topic.  As though the universe is saying, “Think about this, now.  This is the thing to figure out this week.”  Lately, that thing has been the topic of motivation.  Namely, why in the world do you what you do?  Where does your drive toward a thing, a topic, a social cause, a perspective, come from?  How far back can you trace it?  I’m taking a class about human trafficking as a contemporary moral issue right now, and over and over again we’re circling back to why it is that people feel the need to participate in social justice issues.  The answer, “Because it’s just the right thing to do,” while perhaps easy, is less than helpful.  Because, really, not all of us are interested in abolition of slavery.  It’s just not on the radar.  So why is it central for some, or why is another issue like abortion, or environmental degradation, or the death penalty?  Why?  I’m still thinking about the particular causes I’m concerned about, where my motivation comes from, my attraction to them, but I think I’ve figured out why it is that I’m generally worried and involved with issues when people are excluded, marginalized, silenced.  Whether it’s poverty or lesbian and gay rights, I am overcome with some real anger and sadness that people aren’t cared for, that they aren’t heard.  

Last month, I received a Facebook friend request from someone who was one of the popular girls in my elementary school, and it reminded me of where some of this comes from, for me.  I was one of those awkward kids… I never really knew how to dress, didn’t have that natural social aptitude other kids seemed to just exude.  A loner, a reader, the one who liked people but had no clue how to start a conversation with the cool kids.  But, our elementary school was small, so we really had to hang out with everyone.  Somehow, I got hooked into wanting to hang out with the pretty girls.  Not a big surprise.  They weren’t even very interesting or smart, but that’s the stupidity of being human, wanting to fit in.  One day in the third grade, on the athletic field where we had daily recess after lunch, I wandered over to the spot where these five particularly popular girls hung out.  They wouldn’t have invited me, hadn’t, but I had no reason to think I wasn’t welcome.  But I walked up to the little clutch of them and said, “Hi, can I sit down?” hoping for someone to hang out with at recess.  And one of them, the coolest (’cause she could do that thing with her bangs that was so popular in the mid-’80’s, where they fluff up 5 inches… you know the style.  I couldn’t ever manage it without looking ridiculous), she looked right at me and said, “I’m sorry, do you all hear something?  I could swear I heard something.”  And turned to the others and smiled meanly.  They sort of turned to me, then her, and one of them (the short, thin one, gymnast-type) said, “Nah.  I think it was the wind. I didn’t hear anything.”  And, as one, they all turned and ignored me, pointedly.  I remember really clearly their nasty little exclusive smiles, the closing of the ranks.  I’m sure this interaction took about 30 seconds.  In my memory, it was an eternity.  This isn’t a special experience – I’m nearly certain we’ve all felt this, in school at some point… at work, in our communities.  Feeling erased, totally cast out, unwanted for no reason other than the fact that the other could do it, their social cache allowing them a moment of true power.  We were eight… but it’s a microcosm, and representative of so many things I see in the world today.  I’m a pretty privileged person, with most of the social and cultural advantages valued in our world today… I’m white, straight, middle-class, healthy, well-educated.  And yet, even I could be silenced, devalued.  I remember thinking, walking away in tears, that I never wanted to make anyone feel so small.  

Then, at age 12, at my YMCA summer camp,  I was those girls, for a summer, for the sake of feeling included, of being powerful.  Mary was the only black girl at camp, and we made her life a living hell for one week, starting with the day one of her extensions fell out and we screamed in mock fear then shunned her for the rest of camp.  I remember intentionally excluding her, the visceral sense of belonging because someone else didn’t.  The rush, and the sort of satisfying guilt, of being capable of creating a space in which I was safe because for once I could draw boundaries around myself that didn’t include another person.  

Thinking about these two very early experiences with exclusion, one as the target and another as the perpetrator, I realize I don’t do social justice work because “it’s the right thing to do.”  I do it as penance.  I do it because, out of that sense of personal responsibility, I can see the walls between people, ones I’ve built and ones that are being constructed by others, some of them tall and wide enough to blot out the sun, some small enough just to make sure people stumble.  It’s not easy to admit that it’s not that I’m a “good person,” or kind, or particularly enlightened, that I feel the need to include people in the larger family of humanity.  I’m not especially altruistic.  Really, it’s all about me.  Well, a lot about me.  I need to do it, for myself, in order to be a part of that family, too, again.  It’s selfish.  And I think that’s probably not a terrible place to start.  But it would be good to hear other people honestly own up to that motivation, too.  Sure, I understand the how and the why of being concerned for others based on the words  of the holy scripture I treasure and the person of Jesus who I attempt, falteringly, to follow, but my motivations, not my justifications for the actions themselves, come from long before I was a person of faith or a mature adult.  

I wonder what motivations other people are willing to admit.




  1. embracethecall Said:

    ah, powerful.

    (also…the BANGS)

  2. sarah porto Said:

    powerful indeed. ” I’ve built and ones that are being constructed by others, some of them tall and wide enough to blot out the sun, some small enough just to make sure people stumble.”.. this part brought tears to my eyes.

    1) I’m glad you’re calling us all out on this. isn’t it amazing how we cloak our insecurities, ego drives, and ulterior motives in “good deeds.” and not always intentionally, just this is perhaps what drives us most to perform those deeds.

    2) you would have had a friend with me on that playground in the 3rd grade. too bad we didn’t have each other then! we would have been the pensive, book nerds off in the corner. and it would have been great!

    3) this is a topic I think about often and I also think it applies in a similar area- how we build ourselves up or tear ourselves down in comparison to others. in the same way that we’re either the target or the perpetrator, we’re also the “lower” or the “higher” on society’s totem pole. these both serve as distractions and more grievous, keep us from seeing others and ourselves as God see’s us.

    this is why I long for heaven. where we will all be healed, whole, and at one with each other.

    thanks for your thoughts- definitely challenged me today…

  3. Jared Said:

    Sigh…I’ve been wrestling with this post for the last couple days since I read it. I started typing a comment right away until I decided I wasn’t sure I wanted to admit my own complicity. I doubt it will surprise anyone, but I suppose underneath the layer of saying I’m for social justice is a person who desperately wants to matter, wants to be noticed, wants to do something great. I want to feel like I have something to say if I run into old friends. I want to be able to show: look, this is what I’m doing with my life. Sometimes I don’t even know if I really care about the social justice project- be it gay rights, economic justice, etc. I think I do, I think I might…but to be honest how is one really to know?

  4. Jules Said:

    I’m wondering about whether I’m criticizing works righteousness or whether I’m wanting to create a space where it’s okay to admit that we’re not always as purely generous as we portray… I feel as though until we really address the “why’s” we won’t get to the work itself and be effective. And, following… asking the question, “Does it matter?” The thought of being able to say (at a high school reunion in June for example) what I’ve “done” or “do” so that I can feel even a mite superior to those silly people (you know there are always those people, the Bangs People) that I am actually much cooler… than them, than I was, than (fill in the chosen blank). I wonder the same about whether the project matters at all. Does being straightforward about these suspicions help the conversation on any level? Is it even useful? Or might we be better off just to pretend like it doesn’t matter?

  5. embracethecall Said:

    Still thinking about this post, and I appreciate the conversation. A couple of thoughts:

    1. in many areas of my life, I have been used to not being taken seriously (you’re a minister because you’re young and idealistic/you’re in a theological school because you couldn’t make it in a church). So the good works component has often turned into those things I “ponder and treasure up in my heart.” Because the world didn’t affirm that I was doing good work. Or that I wanted to serve…simply because I wanted to serve. It is an inward thing…because the rest of the world didn’t understand or affirm it.

    (boy, that sounds whiny, but it’s the honest truth.)

    2. I don’t live my life for affirmation. That’s one of the reasons why I am so ASTONISHED that I am so joyful, and peaceful, and happy about having the affirmation from the West Ohio UMC that I am, indeed, a deacon, called to lifelong servant ministry.


  6. Erin Said:

    Hello Jules,
    A friend of mine pointed out your blog and I thought I would peruse. I feel real honesty in your post and it is refreshing. So often we hide behind our rationalizations for things.

    Having said that, I feel that there really is no altruism. I do believe people do good things, but I believe we do them to somehow benefit. I feel good when I help someone. I feel connected to others when we work on projects– those kinds of things.

    I don’t think there is a thing wrong with this, I just think that we would be more honest if we admitted our true motivation for things.

    • Jules Said:

      I agree, Erin, and I think this is worth exploring. What does it mean to be purely altruistic? How does this conception change the work we do in the world, whether we claim to be disciples of Jesus or people of conscience? Does it even matter? I appreciate your comment, very much.

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