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We Can All Be Better

When I was ten I attended private school in a small Pennsylvania town. Among my least favorite classes was my “reading arts”- not because I hated reading, but because I loved it and now it was deemed as "work" instead of something I voraciously did for fun. My saving grace was being instructed to choose an autobiography and, as an interesting twist, present the book to my class as the individual. I chose The Diary of a Young Girl.

I remember being immediately enveloped by Anne Frank, a girl wise beyond her years and not much older than I was at the time. I can recall what it felt like to read her words. Her life, her viewpoint, her attitude... they astounded me. I often found myself imagining what it must have been like to be a Jewish 13 year-old girl in Nazi Germany- hiding every minute, constantly scared, being kept from friends and family. I'd never been exposed to anything like what I'd read about. I also recall my intense interest in Adolf Hitler. I was interested in him much like people are interested in car accidents. I was a ten year-old reading about Hitler's leadership and war tactics, mapping out the Black Forest on poster board and recruiting my parents to record "news reports" about the Gestapo on my cassette player.

Throughout my project I wasn't so much interested in the why (it felt savage to attempt to understand mass genocide) but the how. "How could humanity allow this to happen?" "How could someone want to wipe young girls like Anne Frank (not to mention millions of other people) out of existence?" "How did this go from a crazy idea people laughed at to one of the worst tragedies in the history of the planet?" And so began my interest in human behavior

(I will surmise that this interest began about 5 years before this story as I was always a keen observer, but I've been advised to never let the little truths get in the way of a good story)

I read about the Pol Pot regime and visited Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. I read Jared Diamond's Collapse. I visited the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago and listened to old radio recordings from the day of Pinochet's military coup (September 11th, 1973) in addition to information unveiled by the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. I visited Barcelona and photographed preserved ruins from the Siege of Barcelona (September 11th, 1714), the day Catalonia was overtaken. As I explored human behavior through reading, museums, travel and history, two questions continued to cross my mind: How do these events come to pass, and why haven't we learned anything from them?

The answer lies in a memory I have from Sasquatch, a music festival I attended in Quincy, Washington. I looked over and saw a man dancing by himself. He looked harmless, albeit probably on some form of drugs. He was dancing like a mad man, song after song. Here's the video:

This is how things start, and if you're a Malcolm Gladwell fan I am sure you are well-versed on the topic of tipping points in humanity. In this particular situation, it's just a free spirit dancing by himself for awhile as onlookers remain seated, watching, smirking and ignoring. No matter how alone he is, he perseveres. Then he persuades a friend, then he gets a few, then he commands an entire lawn of people. The interesting thing is, the above video is from 2009. I didn't go to the 2009 festival, I went to the 2010 show...where the exact same thing happened in the exact same place on the grass.

How to you eat an elephant? One bite (or partying hipster) at a time. What do we learn from history? That it repeats itself and, unfortunately, that we don't learn much from it at all.

It may be difficult to wrap your head around- this example shows harmless freedom and fun- but my point is this: don't ever fear one misguided, harmful person. Fear the next guy, and the next guy, and especially that guy's 12 friends. Because that's what gives ideas power. And whatever you do, try and have the conviction and courage to avoid being one of the hundreds (or millions) of people that shrug their shoulders and run toward the crowd, suddenly in favor of joining in on what they originally viewed as "crazy", off-putting, unappealing, wrong and/or in opposition to their own moral compass.

Going back to the very real and significantly more harmful historical events cited prior to the dancing festival-goers, think past your current feelings about our political climate. Regardless of how you identify politically, you are probably aware that this are troubled times. I challenge you to refrain the temptation of avoidance when you become uncomfortable with this. Consider what the future may hold and challenge yourself to use history as your informant instead of what you're hoping will happen instead.

This post isn't meant to be dramatic or scary- although I would argue that the events of the last few years are certainly that- and these words aren't meant to fuel fear or anger; they're meant to get us past the mental state of begging for the return of annoying baby pictures and kitty memes on facebook. Don't be that person that sticks their head in the sand and wishes for it all to go away. Ignorance is not bliss, it's apathy. There's a big fat line between apathy and harmful rebellion because you don't agree with what's happening in our country. There's room to allow your emotions to make you a better person, to inspire volunteering for organizations that help the environment or the people who are sure to be negatively affected by the new leadership.

Emotions don't count for much in my line of work (yet), but I disagree with discounting them altogether. They are useful if we can reframe and redirect ourselves to much more productive, positive states (read: passionate action, not apathy) and it is shown that leveraging your emotions by reframing them is significantly better for your health than ostriching your head and heart into the sand. I admit it- I understand people's gratitude for now having time to return to their reality TV shows, or to do anything but watch politics, or even praying for the return of kitty memes. That's us grappling with the current state of affairs and wishing for a less dramatic, less exhausting, less emotionally charged time. And that's okay, for awhile.

But now more than ever, it's important for us to challenge ourselves to woman up a little. To be authentic to who we are. To choose the worthier (albeit harder) road of strength and substance and purpose, and to abandon the easier road of convincing ourselves we don't care and that we're just going to accept everything from now on.

This article was inspired by the happenings in the world of climate change because, along with human rights and marriage equality, the environment has always been a part of me. It's a cause I have chosen to stand up and fight for in the wake of the recent tumult, in addition to working with special needs orphans in Mexico and doing whatever I can to support human rights here in the U.S. I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania known for its coal production. My grandfather, a first generation Italian immigrant, worked in the mines and eventually became the owner of one. It catapulted him into a financial state that allowed for the education of his children and significantly contributed to the health and welfare of his grandchildren. However, it saddens me that the new leadership has chosen to ignore research and important advances in clean energy in favor of courting voters who are less focused on the bigger picture of the planet. It's an act of selfishness and short-sightedness I cannot and will not accept. One of my favorite quotes by Thomas Jefferson speaks to this more eloquently than I ever could:

I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and Constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors

I don't have children but I've been thinking about what I will say to him or her should I have the opportunity one day. I thought about what I want my answer to be when they ask me about this time in history. I imagined saying "Well, we were upset. But we just accepted it.". Then I realized that answer would probably be followed by an "I'm sorry we didn't do more, maybe your life would be different". And that's just simply not okay with me.