I wish I could make it simple, this desire to write down my narrative about who I am now and how I got here. Immediately, I racialize my intent because who I am is a 62 year old white guy who’s taught mostly teachers to be for thirty five years at the same “predominantly white” institution. My institution is located in the second whitest state in the union. I suppose that’s why I’ve approached and then backed away from this task more times than I’d care to mention.
Knowing that I’ve lived in Vermont since 1970, you’d assume my environment didn’t exactly immerse me in the daily work of confrontation and dialogue, reconciliation and transformation that is the work of social justice. Knowing that I’ve lived in Vermont since 1970, you might be interested to know that I ask myself that same question. How useful is my story of how I’ve come to see myself as a small but important participant in this nation’s continuing journey of social justice, a journey to free ourselves from actions and beliefs that serve to diminish parts of our people while lifting up other parts of the great we. “We the people,” we who are the citizens of this democracy in which we live? What meaning might my story have for anyone other than myself? And why should the “anyone other” question be important to me?
I suppose a quite answer to that question is that well, the story is at the very least interesting to me. Self-knowledge, while at least a double edged sword (what if you don’t like what you come up with?!) can be a good thing. And self knowledge for someone who still breaks out in a sticky sweat that the thought of facing a good intellectual confrontation is more than a good thing, at least to understand the sweat. This isn’t a good trait for someone whose spent a good portion of his life surrounded by folks who relish a good intellectual confrontation. So maybe, just maybe, this story is another way in which I’m growing up.
But if the growing up idea is realized, then all and good. Achieving this feeling of having faced that particular demon in my life would be a byproduct to what might be a more important reason for putting these stories to paper. I think there are a lot of “mes” out there. And here, the “me” gets more interesting.
I can imagine that one way of seeing me is to see the me I’ve identified up front, the older white guy. Some messages go along with that. Messages that have to do with power, position, authority, identity. I imagine that I am seen by some “others” as privileged. That I have access to power, that I use that power to my advantage, that I am in fact blind to some of the power that I enjoy, and that in my blindness, I contribute to a system of domination and oppression that keeps me up, whatever and wherever the “up” is, and them “down.” That I am kind of a typical older white guy who teaches his courses in the safety of a tenured position, that I am protected in what I do by the system of which I am a part, and that I am numb to the really important stuff that makes this world good for some and awful for others. Mostly, that I’m blissfully accepting of who I am and what I do. And in that accepting blindness, I’m another white contributor to the social class structure of this country, that through my efforts, that social class structure is strengthened, and though I might decry its existence, my white privilege and associated blindness to the dynamics that hold the class stucture in place makes me worse than suspect. I am just another numbed contributor to problems that tear with greater force these days at the fragile fabric of our democratic society. Hding in the ivory tower, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Well partially, they are right. If that’s the way I am seen, there are plenty of ways you might bring this kind of interpretation to my daily activities.
And partially, they are wrong. It goes without saying , there is much more that goes on in this head and mind and body and spirit than that stereotypical portrait embodies. But how would you know, unless I told the story. How would you know, unless you saw how I think about myself as a social justice activist. How would you know?
So that is the reason I’m finally sitting to write. Writing about the social construction of who I am might urge others to consider their own such construction. My construction, my stories might urge others to consider their own stories, and then to share them with others. That sharing is really important. If we don’t share our stories, than who we are is left up to others’ imaginations. Who we are becomes the who they want us to be. I’m unsatisfied with that position. I’d much rather at this point in my life offer up to others my thoughts and feelings and definite certainties and uncertainties about the who I am so that together, I might re-construct the reality that exists between myself and any number of others who surround me. It is in this reconstruction that forward and communal movement is possible. It is in this reconstruction that the isolation and alienation of one from another on perhaps misperceived sides of the racial divide can be addressed. It is in this reconstruction that perhaps a little more understanding of how we work together to chip away at the class structure in this country might be achieved.
We have to keep reforming this democracy in which we life. If it is truly to be of, for, and by the people, then this person has to get on with it in a way that other people can grasp and understand and place within a much larger set of dynamics that renew democracy, dynamics like freedom, responsibility, and ethical behavior. This country’s founding principles, imperfect though they are, are our great hope, especially as we continue to more defined and differentiated as groups within the democracy. I hold the differentiation process that makes me look around and see people who look, think, and act differently from myself as the first step in a process that achieves a more informed integration of who we are as a people. We understand our commonality only when we embrace our distinctiveness. Maybe ultimately, that’s what this little set of stories is all about.
My stories are also an effort to construct a larger frame through which I understand myself. And when I think about that frame, two ideas come to mind. These are not new ideas to me. The notion of a pre-destined future and living life in the present moment have surely been explored almost as long as philosophers have written of human experience. But understanding “human experience” and understanding “Charlie Rathbone’s experience” are quite different things. Unless I understand myself as connected to the larger truths of human experience, then the disconnection is in fact an alienation. No man is an island. I take that to mean that I am an island unless I understand how I connect to others and give them the opportunity to experience me.
The first idea is the idea that I am only an accumulation of my life’s experience. My future actions result from my history. That who I am today, the actions I take, the feelings I feel, the rationalizations I construct for what I do are in some way pre-destined by what has happened to me across my life’s span. That at this point in my life, I live out a life history that has be set. That my intentionality is not free. That who I will become has been set by who I’ve been. Well, in my sleep states, the idea of predestination pretty accurately defines my behavior. But in my awake states, I choose to be who I’m supposed to be or I choose to be someone different. These decisions vary in degree of difficulty, but they are nonetheless, decisions. I can alter the life path. I can redefine moments in the past or redirect momentum. I know that any alteration or redirection affects others in the world around me, and often that’s the reason for inaction. But when awake, I face the consequences and decide. Like writing this book.
The second idea has to do with living life in the present moment, more particularly how I literally see and understand life in the present moment. Two metaphors help me understand what I’m getting at here. The first comes from those moments in Matrix where the matrix is penetrated. I am fascinated by the idea that what I saw ahead of me on my walk to work this morning, the sidewalk, South Prospect St., piles of snow, and gritty sidewalks finally mostly clear from a break in the cold that has rendered even salt useless, the colors around me, the sounds of the cars, the bikers, the birds, all these sights are (?) three dimensional in that I’m walking into a world that has height, width, and depth. And yet I can imagine it without depth. That what I am seeing and hearing and feeling against my cheeks exists in two dimensions only. I have only to switch my consciousness of it and step through a hole that I render in that fabric to experience a new reality, a new understanding of what is really going on.
So while all the injunctures of Be Here Now still play out in my 60’s informed mind, I also have this visual image of stepping through into another dimension working in my brain. And the idea is freeing to me. I think it helps me literally reframe how I see the moment. It’s a little like collapsing the layers of my life much like Photoshop allows me to compact several layers of a visual image I’m in the process of constructing. The past magically becomes only a moment. And in this moment, I have greater freedom to decide what the next one will be or even how I will see the next one by stepping through one matrix into another.
So I write to understand my moment better by collapsing the layers of my life into a single layer. I’m writing to see the depth of who I am now, at this very moment, and in doing that, to explain the who that I am to others. In thinking about this work as an act of altering my consciousness of the present, I’m inviting others to do the same. Together, we achieve a richer understanding of our moments, and perhaps a more hopeful rendering of our futures.