What Might Have Been: The inexplicable path that kept me from ending up as another angry White man
I am a person of profound privilege. As a white, cisgender-heterosexual Christian man raised in America, I have had nearly every benefit and buffer afforded human beings, and this has made my path exponentially easier than those not carrying these qualifiers.
Simply because of my pigmentation, gender, orientation, profession of faith, and physical appearance, I have been insulated from countless traumas and shielded from a multitude of threats that so many people experience as their default setting. I have benefited from and participated in a system that has been set up for me and for people like me to succeed in ways I’ll never fully comprehend.
I also know that I have been extremely fortunate to become aware of such things, and that I could just as easily missed it all and been someone very different than I am today: I could have been a hateful white man thinking I was pleasing God and making America great by treating people horribly.
Over the past few years, it’s been horrifying to see family members, longtime friends, and people from my former churches reveal a startling ugliness that at first seemed shocking to me; white people I grew up with and knew for years and served alongside. Witnessing their contempt for immigrants, their deep seated racism, their adoration of guns, and their irrational fear of LGBTQ people, I’ve often found myself thinking, “I know these people. I know their families. I grew up with them. How could they think like this?” as if this was an unexpected development.
Yet, the more I’ve thought about it, the more it all makes sense now. In fact, as I considered the people who raised them and the churches they attended and the narrow world they’ve spent their lives in and the media they’ve consumed for decades — the surprise would have been if they hadn’t turned out this way.
And it is here that I realize how lucky I am.
I could so easily have learned to be afraid of diversity, too. I could have believed the lie that my whiteness is better. I could have been polluted by toxic religion enough to hate gay people. I could have imagined that America was the totality of the world. I could have learned to parrot back myths about Muslims and migrants and transgender teenagers. I could have fallen for the dangerous conspiracies and been taken in by the big lies.
And I know the fact that I somehow haven’t, isn’t necessarily a matter of greater character of higher intelligence than those who grew up in similar privilege — but a combination of more information, dumb luck, and some really beautiful people who helped me transcend the smallness and the sameness of my surroundings when others were not able to. The fact that I was fortunate enough to travel and meet disparate human beings and get better stories and to hear perspectives on America or opportunity or justice that were different than my own, remade me in ways I can’t fathom or take credit for but am grateful for.
Along the way, instead of having my religion reinforced, I had it challenged. Instead of relinquishing my critical thinking to preachers, politicians, and talk show hosts, I learned to think for myself. Instead of allowing partisan media to shape my understanding of the world, I went and experienced it. Instead of being resistant to difference, I was taught to welcome it.
I know that these people who are so afflicted with such a wasteful hatred are rational adults. I know they are fully responsible for what they think and what they do and what they post and how they vote, yet part of me has a small measure of empathy for them because in some ways they are the products of their stories, which at many points were not so different from my story. Even as I despise their theology and oppose their politics and condemn their violence, there is a small ember of mercy in the recesses of my heart — because we could have been standing in very different places right now.
These are not all mindless, unhinged, unstable caricatures. They are in many ways intelligent, reasonable human beings, who remind me how easy it is to be slowly manipulated by persistent and repeated calculated lies, how persuasive fear can be when it press into the right places, how the desire to belong will make people believe almost anything in order to remain in community.
I am not without prejudice, not exempt from embracing stereotypes, and not above fearing people because of a false story I have about them. I am still benefitting from my privilege in ways that I can’t fathom, but I see myself and the world clearly enough to know that this unthinkable cruelty that confounds and infuriates me every day in people who look like me, is something I am incredibly fortunate to have been saved from.
As I work to resist these people, I need to keep trying to reach them. There but for the grace of God and good people, go I …
The original version of this Op Ed was published on johnpavlovitz.com