I was going to write a blog this week about a unique perspective on the opioid crisis, but it’s going to wait a week, thanks to a play entitled The Unwritten Law. I call it a play, but it really wasn’t. It was beatboxer Chesney Snow’s one-man autobiographical poem, accompanied by dance and music, that shares his incredibly powerful and, sadly, not-so-rare family history full of racial discrimination, substance abuse, incarceration, teen pregnancy, physical violence and, most powerful to me, his ability to survive and come out a strong, gentle, brilliant, caring, generous soul who wants to “have a conversation about transforming how we look at race, equality and family.”
To be honest, I went to the show to support my niece, the lighting designer for the show, but I haven’t been able to think of much since that evening. And that is not because of the horrors that Chesney and his family have experienced, but because by the time the show ended, I desperately wanted more. I wanted Chesney to do more than just have more conversations.
The sad truth is that our world is full of disgusting examples of discrimination. It has been that way since the earliest days of man, and as controversial as what I am about to say is, I honestly am not sure how many more generations it is going to take for humanity to realize that we really are all one race intended to share this world in a loving way. There…I said it. I am not sure that all of the protests and demonstrations, whether peaceful or violent, will effectively overcome the vileness that lives in some people’s hearts—at least not in the short run. (Do you remember how we all came together for a few brief days…or weeks…or months after 9/11? What happened to that?)
I am not suggesting that we give up on making a difference. Instead, I am suggesting a different strategy. Rather than have more conversations about society’s oppressive and divisive nature, we should focus on the power of personal choices. What can be done to train and support and create opportunities for individuals trying to free themselves from their pasts? How do we teach them resilience so that they can move into possibility?
Chesney is not the only black man to overcome hell. The world is full of successful individuals—black, white or purple, of different religions and different genders—who managed to live through their own horrible ordeals and become contributing members of society rather than bitter victims stuck forever in the quicksand that was their lives.
We all have family and cultural legacies, and it is our choice to perpetuate them or change them—families who deal with alcoholism or violence or simply poor communication. Each generation can choose to follow in the footsteps of their parents and repeat the patterns…or to break free and create new patterns. Children who were beaten, as Chesney was, do not have to become spouse and child abusers. My father grew up in a house full of verbal and physical abuse—his parents cared more about their social engagements than they cared about their son. But my father chose to walk a different path. He rarely raised his voice to us, and he made sure that we had family plans every New Year’s Eve because he had been left alone on that holiday every year when he was young. I asked Chesney how he overcame the hell that was his life. His answer: His mother created an amazing environment of love and family. And even though he became a teenage father, he has fought to be a loving, present father in his son’s life.
After the performance, I challenged Chesney to consider that focusing on simply having the conversation about social and racial problems leaves people in a “victim place” of complaining and hoping for change. Instead, I asked if Chesney, drawing on his own grit and resilience, can help others overcome their own personal hell? How can he teach people to provide a loving environment like his mom created? Or find their creative outlet that could act as a release from the hell? To me, that’s where the big takeaway and opportunity for change are.
I’m not just talking about overcoming racial challenges. This is for every individual who feels a victim of his/her life. What can we do as individuals to make one change today…and another tomorrow and the day after that? The power of even one small change can grow geometrically over time. Just because your parents divorced, you don’t have to. Nor do you have to follow in the footsteps of substance abuse, financial failure or any other fate that you presume can’t be overcome.
Increasingly I hear people looking for “someone” to help them save the day, often assuming that it’s the government’s job. But here’s a secret, the government isn’t in your home or your life helping you make individual choices each day about what you do and who you do it with. The government can continue to make all sorts of laws in an attempt to create and preserve a constructive societal structure, but individuals either choose to follow or ignore those laws. On a day-to-day and moment-to-moment basis, no one else is coming to make the choices in your life but you. It is up to each of us to make the best decisions we can each day as we work toward living the life we want.
The hurdles to achieve those dreams generally are challenging and often seem insurmountable. My husband has a favorite phrase—“Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right.”
Change is possible. Ask Chesney. I am reminded of the words to the school song from my daughters’ local elementary school: “It only takes a spark to get a fire glowing…” What kind of spark can you ignite to get the fire of change glowing?