A couple of weeks ago, I had a freak-out on the L – Chicago’s rapid transit city trains. A man was loudly asking to sit down in the car I was in; he said he was disabled and he needed to sit. By the time I had taken off my headphones to realize what was going on, I was so angry that nobody would get up from their seat. Me and the girl next to me got up immediately and offered our seats even though he had passed several people who just didn’t seem to care. Before I got off at my stop, something exploded in me. I angrily told everyone in that car that it takes particularly passively heartless people to see someone in need of something as simple as a seat, and ignore him.
I could give you an academic critique to that train interaction – the man was Black and elderly and may potentially have had some mental health issues. Without knowing anything else about him, one could perceive that his clothing would mark him as poor or maybe homeless. And in my critique, I would tell you the fact that me and the girl who got up were both Black means something to that interaction. But in the moment, all I know is that somebody needed to sit down and most people just ignored him. And as I walked home, half-way in tears because I am secretly emotional about such things, I realized that I had been the crazy girl on a train.
But I don’t regret yelling. For me justified anger changes things, sometimes it even changes people. I wouldn’t be who I am today without some of the stern conversations my parents had with me growing up. Their example of always being willing to say and do the uncomfortable but right thing, has made me a better person. And it’s why I can have the courage to be that crazy girl on the train telling-off a bunch of strangers for not doing better; for not being better. And the potential stereotype that is sometimes attached to me in these moments as being the loud Black girl (as opposed to the assertive human being) is something that I have learned to live with.
One of my favorite quotes by Maya Angelou is, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” I think all of us can apply this one directly to our lives. When I think of my childhood and so far my adulthood, most of the times I wish I could change, were the times I have lacked courage: The courage to be myself or to stand up for something I believe in; the courage to stand up for someone that is in the moment, the victim of malice or marginalization. And many times the courage to do the right thing even when that means doing the most uncomfortable thing.
I don’t go through life yelling at people – that would be unproductive. But I also don’t go through life pretending that my words and actions or lack thereof, do not make a difference. And every time I have done the comfortable thing at the expense of doing the right thing, I have regretted it. Because I know I was raised better than that and I believe that most people are too. Sometimes it takes courage to be silent and walk away. Sometimes it takes courage to speak up. It always takes wisdom to know the difference between those situations but without the courage to practice either, we become comfortable being cowards.
I never ever want to be a coward even if it means I have to be the crazy girl on a train. And I will never know enough about those people who didn’t get up that day, to condemn them. But I will always feel enough for the man in need on that train, to advocate for him. Because in that moment, I do believe that anything less would have been cowardice.