Muhammad Ali once said, “A man who views the world at 50 the same way he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” I believe that.
At 20, I was certain I had figured out most things. Thirty years later I realize there's a lot I still don't know or understand.
For instance, I’ve come to terms with my personal history of sexism, heterosexism, ableism and classism. Three decades ago, nobody could have convinced me of my participation in these -isms. In my 20s I thought, “As an African American male who experiences racism, I’ve got a firm grip on how it feels to be gay, a woman, disabled person or someone poor. There’s no way would I participate in any form of discrimination.”
Today, I realize just how little I understand what these targeted groups go through – despite having close friendships across each group. Back then I didn’t know that I didn’t know. Today, I know I don’t know, but I’m listening, reading and learning. Huge difference.
Speaking of racism, I’ve gone through much of my life believing it consisted merely of bad individuals actively thinking and doing prejudicial things against people of color. It wasn't until later that I came to understand the state-sanctioned policies and systems that were created to establish and perpetuate racism. And that good, well-meaning people help prop up these systems – through unconscious bias and/or their silence.
Another biggie: I had no idea some 30 odd years ago that the physical injuries of my youth would fester until my middle ages, and begin a gradual torment that would likely follow me to my final days. Nor did I realize the significance of other sorts of injuries. The kind that occur up in your head.
Nowadays I understand that certain mental and emotional traumas from my childhood, teen years and young adulthood impact how I see the world and move through it. Back then it all seemed like it was “one and done.” And yet, had I not been teased and bullied, would I have embarked on my current social justice career path? One wonders.
I used to think not having my father around after he passed in my 20s was “just one of those things” and I’d get by. Yet in later years I recognized the magnitude of no longer benefiting from the wisdom of his counsel. In him I lost an important perspective. He’d seen me at my very best, and worst. From that, he could offer viewpoints like no other man. (Thank goodness I still have mom). In my youth, I squandered countless opportunities to benefit from his wisdom. Today I’d walk through fire to hear his words.
Which brings me to my two closest friends. They walk alongside me today with an importance that has me lamenting the rather childish ways in which I held their friendship in our 20s. Back then, trust with them centered on mostly juvenile notions, like how to get women and what gym exercises to do to look my best.
Today I depend on them as confidants for truly important things, like how to stay in my marriage when it’s tough. I still ask about the best gym exercises, though not to look my best but rather feel it. If only I could have let go my macho insecurities to engage in more substantive conversation. But you live and learn.
A lot of folks stubbornly cling to habits, practices, values and beliefs, even when life experiences reveal how harmful they are to one’s self and/or others. That’s sad because self-examination is the only way to achieve transformative growth as a human being.
Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.