“To me, freedom entitles you to do something, not to not do something.” -Shel Silverstein
This week, I encountered several major instances of social injustice, just within my small circle of influence. The phrase “no good deed goes unpunished,” by Clare Boothe Luce, echoed loudly and repeatedly in my head, as if by megaphone.
My friend was in a store with her son, who happens to be on the Autism spectrum. Three teenage employees were hanging out in the corner, blatantly laughing at him. My friend’s son is one of the happiest, nicest and most loving kids I have ever met. He would do anything for his friends, family or for that matter, anyone he just met on the street. My friend’s heart was broken when she witnessed the situation. She was put in an uncomfortable position because it was now up to her to address it. She handled it beautifully and held those teenagers accountable for their behavior.
A teenager in the Bronx was charged with manslaughter. His mother’s ex-boyfriend, drunk and on PCP, attacked her in her home. This teenager jumped to her defense. In the scuffle, the ex-boyfriend was killed. Now the son is the one who faces prison. I do not have any evidence in front of me. But I have to assume that if I were the son in that situation, I would have done anything possible to save my mother from this horrific attack. I’m sure he did not intend to kill him, but I also assume that it is difficult to pinpoint and calculate the exact amount of force necessary that will keep you out of prison and save your mother from certain death.
I have another friend who was held responsible for someone’s suicide, even though she had never even met him. I cannot give details of the situation, but rest assured, she had done nothing but build a support network from scratch, with the intention of helping individuals in need. She simply became a scapegoat and was blamed for years of mental issues blatantly ignored by all those around him.
The common point of these three situations is that there are so many people out there driving swiftly and aggressively towards disaster; teenagers publicly exhibiting egregious ignorance, extreme chemical addictions robbing people of their senses, severe domestic abuse perpetually cycling through generations, and individuals not getting the mental health help they so desperately need. But by the time concerned people get involved, they are often blamed, when they had absolutely nothing to do with the root cause. The action-oriented people discussed in the above three scenarios had no choice other than to get involved. But they had to make up for the inaction of so many people who should have been heavily involved in the first place. Studies out there have proved that people often recognize bad behavior, but remain silent. It takes effort to get involved and most simply just don’t want to bother.
The teenagers that laughed at the boy; their behavior had been witnessed before. But instead of someone standing up and saying that it was wrong, it was simply laughed off. The ex-boyfriend on drugs and alcohol; many unscrupulous people were profiting from his addictions. Chances are, the neighborhood knew about the awful domestic abuse that son had witnessed repeatedly over many years but no one wanted to address what was going on behind closed doors. The person who was lost to suicide; he was not getting the mental health services he so seriously needed because it was easier to look the other way. As a society, we all bear collective responsibility for holding people accountable and getting them help if they need it. They might refuse upfront, but we must continue to try. We cannot stand by and let problems grow into insurmountable issues with dire consequences. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard passing comments, “Don’t get involved, it’s not your problem.” We also have to support people who do take a stand, as often times they will suffer largely negative consequences just for doing the right thing. As June Jordan ignited the oft-repeated words in her 1978 poem entitled Poem for South African Women, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”