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Grow and behold: we can do better

By Buddy Early, June 2019 Issue.

I’m very fond of the phrase “Nothing changes if nothing changes.” I’ve shared this advice with numerous people over the years, hoping to convince them that they have the ability to alter their circumstances, to say goodbye to destructive behaviors, and to become a better person. Sometimes the replies I receive are along the lines of “Physician, heal thyself” and “Do you practice what you preach?” and “fuck off.”

Hey — I cannot help those who do not want to be helped. There are those who would rather not become a better person, I guess.

When I was in grade school I was caught shoplifting twice. Now, you might think that being caught twice means I wasn’t very good at it, but I can assure you I was very talented. When you consider sheer volume, being caught twice was a drop in the bucket. In the shoplifting milieu, I was very prolific; I was the damn Ryan Murphy of shoplifting. But I became a better person, at least in the sense that I accepted shoplifting was wrong and decided to become a boring teenager who never got into trouble and did shit like homework, volunteering, and snitching on my siblings for staying out too late.

Cut to me in college. In my sketch comedy troupe, I was the go-to guy for playing a limp-wristed, sashaying, lisping queen. (I was really making great use of the Meisner technique I had studied.)  We mined plenty of jokes out of the notion of a dude taking it up the ass. And our audience was there for it.

These are just two examples of things I used to do that I am not proud of, but also examples of two ways I have become a better person. The former was flat-out wrong, and I knew it was wrong at the time. The latter was something socially acceptable at the time and for which I received no negative feedback. Looking back, we should have known better.

But most of us know better now. Just as we learn and grow from blatant mistakes in our youth (i.e. stealing, cheating, setting fire to a field of dead grass and then running from the police officer who eventually had to turn back so he could actually put out the fire), we can also grow from the mistakes that were not so obvious to us at the time.

By “us” I mean our country.

The #MeToo movement has brought to light our history of mistreatment of women, not just assault but things like harassment and inequality. Our outdated patriarchal attitudes were, for some reason, acceptable to most in previous eras. That system is now being dismantled, because we now know better.

People used to don blackface and, while always offensive, it was acceptable to most white people. In 2019 we can see that doing so should offend us all. We see that because we now know better.

Kids who had trouble learning used to be called stupid or were simply assigned to a remedial classroom where they wouldn’t interfere with others’ learning. Over the years we have identified a number of learning disabilities that explain why some have a more difficult time learning than others. Now we know better.

Some of us used to get the paddle at school, or the belt at home. While these practices have not completely gone away, our society understands that physical punishment is not a great solution to misbehavior by our children. Thankfully, we know better.

People used to die of diseases like polio, smallpox and measles. Thanks to advances in medicine we have mostly eradicated these diseases worldwide, despite the efforts of Google geniuses who insist these diseases just faded away naturally. We vaccinate for these diseases because we now know better. Every innovation in science and technology is built on previous successes that lead us to knowing better. Why shouldn’t advancements in our culture be celebrated the same?

Frankly, many Americans’ unwillingness to evolve on social matters is baffling. Too many have this odd and inexplicable attachment to “returning to the way things used to be.” But “the way things used to be” were really fucked up in a whole lot of ways. We should know that because we lived through it. We should be excited about improving ourselves and our nation, not fear it.

I certainly do not do many of the shitty things I did in my youth and am glad to have evolved. Because I know better.