I was fourteen when I begged my parents to let me go to Selma and march with the civil rights workers there. The next summer, I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch was my hero, along with Martin Luther King, Jr.
My parents didn’t let me go to Selma, so I stayed home and read books about the Holocaust, how the Danes smuggled Jews to Sweden, and how other courageous people fought against the Nazis.
Young and naïve, I yearned for some sort of crisis where I could prove my mettle and be true to my ideals. Of course I would help save the world, but I needed cases where good and evil were clearly defined. Instead, there seemed to be a lot of gray in the world.
As the years went by, I began to realize that a lot of injustice was fairly subtle stuff, and true heroes and heroines didn’t wait for situations of historic proportions. Instead, they did what they could in small, incremental ways. The people I admired most were those who treated all people with respect in their everyday dealings at work and at home. My daughter’s father refused membership in the Rotary Club when invited to join because they did not accept women members at that time. “How can I join a club,” he asked the Rotarians, “that would not invite my daughter to join if she had the same professional status I have?” One Rotarian later told me those words had shaken him. “He didn’t condemn us. He just stated why he couldn’t be a Rotarian. I went home that evening and looked at my daughter, and I felt lousy. I think everyone did.” By the time the Supreme Court ruled against Rotary’s discrimination, at least one Wisconsin Rotary group jumped at the chance to include women members.
The people I admired most also gave to charities I had once looked upon with disdain. While I was boycotting lettuce, the Salvation Army was providing shelter to homeless families. While I was buying politically correct tomato sauce, The Red Cross was helping families who had lost everything in disasters of one kind or another.
At about the time I realized I couldn’t save the world, I also realized I didn’t have to. There were plenty of people doing their part to make the world whole. I learned that love and forgiveness are transforming, so I forgave myself for not doing more and started doing what I could. I could affirm each person I came into contact with each day. I could give time and money to causes I believed in, lending my support to all the people already at work doing the right thing.