He stands at the podium, basking in the accolades bestowed upon him. Smiling, he accepts the award, making a few appreciative remarks and a memorable bon mot before returning to his seat. Tomorrow he’ll send pictures and a summary to his boss, his boss’s boss and probably several levels above that. He’ll be sure to strike a humble tone, emphasizing that it was a team effort and stating how honored he was to accept the award on behalf of the company. He’s certain to be lauded for his efforts, for representing the organization in the community and for his magnanimity. Maybe he will be promoted.
At home, he logs in to social media apps, “liking” causes and posts that support women, minorities, LBGTQ and the less fortunate. Occasionally he shares something that feels particularly poignant. He frowns and shakes his head at the hateful and hurtful posts of some of his “friends” and “followers,” but maintains his silence. Freedom of speech. Freedom of religion. Everyone has a right to their opinion, he tells himself.
He views a news feed of yet another unarmed black man being killed by police, this one in his hometown. He was once a cop. It was the military, but still… and he remembers being taught that deadly force was a last resort, to be used only when all other means had been exhausted, and only when the assailant had intent, opportunity and capability. None of those things existed in this case, nor in most if any of the cases that have become public knowledge the past few years. He knows his history, that police abuse of power and racism is not a recent phenomenon. For a brief second he considers joining those gathered outside the courthouse. Then he remembers his job. What if he were to be arrested? His livelihood, his home, his security. No.
Still, he can’t shake the feeling of injustice. He thinks, Black Lives Matter, but he doesn’t post it. He has many friends who are or were cops and he doesn’t want to offend—hell, he appreciates their service, the sacrifices and the daily risks they accept as part of their jobs. He has many other friends who are black, who are afraid—or angry. He moves on.
A message appears on his phone. “Had to buy medicine, need help making rent.” He shakes his head. A 30-something high school educated food service worker making just above minimum wage, no paid time off, no health benefits. Not good for someone with a chronic medical condition. Still, there’s the Affordable Health Care plan, only she says she can’t afford it, that it’s cheaper to pay the penalty. This frustrates him—makes him sad. Why aren’t we helping the working poor? He remembers talk of raising the minimum wage to a livable wage. What happened to that idea? He makes a mental note to research that, and gets a check from his checkbook. He’s a good man. That’s what he tells himself.
On Twitter, he scrolls through the various humanitarian sites, wincing at the level of destruction in the Middle East and Africa. He grabs a beer from the ice box and his eyes get misty at the pictures of refugees. Sitting up a little straighter, he recalls the time he sent emails to his Governor, Senator and Congressional Representative, imploring them to help with this humanitarian crisis by facilitating refugees into the country. They all refused, citing security concerns. America, home of the brave. Bullshit, he remembered thinking.
His wife tells him she picked up a documentary from the library about sexual assault of women in the U.S. Armed Forces. They watch it over dinner and he is outraged. He adds those Twitter sites to his feed and retweets some of their posts to show his support. On the weekend, he plans to send a small donation to one of the organizations, and one to Amnesty International for good measure. He reaches out to trusted friends and family to express his indignation over the injustice done to these young women. He considers contacting his political representatives but decides it’s pointless
In bed, his wife asks him to watch the budget. No more unplanned expenses if they want to take a vacation next summer. He agrees, then remembers something important. “Did you get the promotion?”
The answer is, a terse, “No.” He knew better than to ask specifics. They’d already discussed the generalities: lesser qualified (less education and experience) male peer currently making 20% higher wage. “Women’s inequality,” she told him, her eyes aflame. He commiserated with her, but hey, what could he do?
He feels his body relax, muscles twitching as he moves closer to a quiescent state. He is peaceful, his righteousness allowing sleep to come easily, until something starts eating its way into his consciousness. Slowly yet insistently, nibbling against the edges, until nibbles become bites, more ravenous with each second, until the righteousness is devoured and he jerks upright, sweating.
He is aware of something that had been long stored in the recesses of his mind. Something now free to roam his consciousness. Something learned in college. Then he remembers. A Dr. King quote: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
He rubs his face, knowing that sleep will not come easily tonight. He is not the good man he thought he was. He is a good-for-nothing man.
Tom Gumbert lives near Cincinnati, OH with his wife Andrea (Andy) in a log home overlooking the Ohio River, in an area that was an active part of the Underground Railroad. Operations Manager by day, he has been writing for over a decade with an eclectic taste in what he reads and writes.