When I was ten, in my first day home from surgery to lengthen both of my Achilles tendons, I learned that I wasn’t going to be able to be a victim. I was trying to retrieve underwear from my top dresser drawer when I tumbled backward. Pain erupted from my ankles when I stepped back, and in desperation, I pulled the drawer back with me, emptying its contents on the floor.
I sat there stunned, trying to figure out how to fix the situation, when my dad came into the room. He looked at the mess, and before turning to leave, told me that I was going to need to figure it out myself and that I shouldn’t feel sorry for myself. I know it sounds harsh, but many of life’s lessons aren’t suited for the Hallmark Channel.
I thought about that scene this week, when watching and reading about the misguided destruction in response to a grand jury decision not to indict a police officer in the unfortunate shooting of a robbery suspect. In Ferguson, Missouri and other points, people took to the streets to protest not so much the grand jury’s decision, but the injustice they perceived it to represent. They were goaded into this behavior by leaders who have made victimhood an industry and by media who sought to sensationalize a story and create a narrative which they know plays well these days – victimhood.
When you tell people, as the President of the United States did, that it’s acceptable to be frustrated and assume the role of a victim, it should come as no surprise that people act like frustrated victims. That’s a dangerous precedent, and it’s becoming more prevalent and more destructive to the American Dream.
Victims lose hope and feel shame. They are mistrusting and suspicious. They feel that they can’t escape a dismal fate, and when that false message is reinforced by leaders and many in the media, they lose all hope of empowerment.
The opposite of victimhood is empowerment – the ability to have an effect on your plight. You don’t have empowerment by throwing a brick through a convenience store window. That just feeds the narrative of the victim lashing out at his oppressor. You have empowerment when you hold yourself and those you influence to higher standards. Pointing fingers and casting blame aren’t acts of empowerment; self-realization and self-improvement are.
It all starts with honest self-assessment. We have to face who we are – both the positives and the negatives – and we have to assess our situation – do we deserve better and are we willing to do everything we can to make it better, regardless of what anyone else tells us is possible?
I sat on the edge of my bed and cried that Sunday morning. It wasn’t fair that I was cursed with a disease that made strangers stop and stare, that made me the last chosen for basketball games during PE, that made me suffer through excruciating medical procedures and physical therapy. It wasn’t fair that my own dad wasn’t going to help me.
It wasn’t fair, but it was my plight, and I faced a choice. I could be passive and negative, and accept whatever was given to me or I could approach the world with an optimistic and enthusiastic attitude, knowing that it wouldn’t be easy, but that I would give myself a chance, if I just tried.
Imagine if President Obama pushed that same attitude and spoke of personal responsibility and effort as much as he did of distributing a “fair share.” Imagine if Al Sharpton attacked fatherlessness with the same ferocity as he attacked voter identification legislation. Imagine if the media showed thriving inner-city schools as much as they showed burning buildings.
Imagine empowerment overtaking victimhood.