Due to some forced down time because of a nasty cold, I’ve been lying on the couch doing a lot of TV watching. My intent was that my mind would drift aimlessly, while my body was in recovery mode. Instead, I’ve found myself confronted with an uncomfortable amount of self-reflection, inspired by a couple of shows I’ve seen.
First, I binge-watched a series on Amazon, Good Girls Revolt. It’s the story of a group of female researchers for a national magazine in the 1960s, who are not allowed to do the “man’s work” of reporting the news. Regardless of education or experience, they are relegated to positions as researchers. “Girls” can’t be reporters at the publication. But a few brave souls push back. They speak up, and they speak out. When management remains unmoved, the women risk their current jobs, their future careers, and, in some cases, their relationships, to take the issue to court.
The plot is a fictionalized account of a true story that unfolded at Newsweek magazine. Thanks to those women and others like them, by the time I really got started in my career, the rules had changed. But in many cases, attitudes hadn’t. As I watched the series, it made me think about the times at work–and in life–when I could have spoken up, either for myself or others, but I didn’t, because it wasn’t my fight, or it was uncomfortable, or I was afraid to risk my job.
Then I watched an old movie that set off another bout of self-assessment. Filmed in the late 1940s, Gentleman’s Agreement is about a reporter who pretends to be Jewish, in order to write a story about antisemitism. A character in the film argues that she’s not prejudiced, that when a friend at a dinner party told a derogatory “joke” about Jews, she didn’t laugh, and neither did any of the other “nice people” at the table. The man she’s speaking to responds in a way that prompts her to see the issue in a different light. “A man at a dinner table told a story, and the nice people didn’t laugh. They even despised him, sure. But they let it pass.” She has a moment of clarity and realizes that’s how bigotry is normalized–when nice people say nothing, because it’s too uncomfortable or “impolite” to do so.
I’ve decided that it’s not the things I’ve said that plague my conscience the most–though my reflexive need to give a fast and funny response often gives me plenty of cause for remorse. No, it’s the things I should have said, but didn’t, because it would have been awkward or unpleasant, or difficult, that cause me the most regret.
Last year, my goal was to be more careful with my words, not to substitute a clever comeback for real empathy and understanding. For me, I’m afraid that will remain a lifelong aspiration. But I’m adding a companion resolution to it this year, to try to follow the wise counsel of a Catholic bishop I once interviewed.
“Ask yourself, is it true? Is it your truth to tell? And, can you tell it with love? If your answer is yes, then do it.”