The first time I ran away from home I was seven years old.
I packed a few clothes into a large hard-sided suitcase and lugged it down the stairs. I paused at the front door and shouted back toward the kitchen: “You know I hate pork chops!” No reply. So that was it. Mom had called my bluff. I had no choice but to carry out my threat, out the door and down Ash Avenue.
My plan, if you can call it that, was to head to my grandparents’ house on the other side of town. The problem was the suitcase. It was way too big. I had to use both arms to lift it, and I could only manage a dozen or so steps before setting it down to catch my breath and get a better grip. To compound matters, my little sister was making her way to each of the neighbors in turn, knocking on doors, pointing in my direction, and recounting the outrage that led to my flight.
Although determination can gain strength through opposition, it withers in the face of ridicule. I was learning how hard it is to maintain righteous indignation when everyone is laughing at you.
By the time I reached the end of the block, I was exhausted and humiliated. There was no way I could make it all the way to the other side of town. I turned around and headed back home.
Mom was waiting for me at the front door. A good sign, I thought; maybe she had changed her mind. I gave her one more chance: “Are we still having pork chops for supper?”
“I just put them in the oven,” she replied. “You have to eat what the rest of us are eating.”
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless parent.
The most important decisions we make in life are whether to stay or go. It might be a marriage, a friendship, a company, a church, a sports team, a city or a country. Over the course of a long life, it might be all of those.
Paul Simon says there are 50 ways to leave a lover, but actually, when it comes to any kind of relationship, there are only two ways to leave: physically or mentally.
Regular polls by the Gallup organization reveal that only about 30 percent of Americans report being engaged in their work. The rest have checked out mentally.
And it isn’t just in the workplace that people have checked out.
Relatively few people bother to vote in local elections. Even hotly contested national elections rarely get more than 50 percent participation.
Recently I’ve talked to several people so disgusted with the state of politics that they no longer pay attention to the news. “What’s the point?” a man said to me the other day. “They [the politicians] are just going to keep doing what they want.”
When it comes to church, Americans increasingly describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” meaning they believe in some sort of divinity but have no formal ties to religious institutions.
Membership in service organizations is steadily declining, along with volunteering.
People all across the country are bemoaning the loss of community but seem unwilling to pay its price. To have community, one must bind oneself into relationship with others, and along with that comes a commitment to not walking away.
Fortunately, there are other ways, besides leaving, to effect change.
In “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty,” the economist Albert O. Hirschman described two ways a person might express dissatisfaction within a relationship: “exit” and “voice.” The first is leaving; the second is simply speaking up.
When we celebrate Independence Day in this country, we would do well to remember that the kind of freedom the founders had in mind was not primarily the ability to choose our own individual paths. The freedom they had in mind was — first and foremost— the ability to participate meaningfully in public life by voting, attending meetings, speaking at public forums, talking to our neighbors, writing and publishing. These are all ways of using voice.
When I came down to supper that evening long ago, I was surprised to discover that I liked pork chops. (I had probably confused them with venison chops, which my mother still does not know how to cook properly). I had been so angry that I had not asked any questions. For dessert that evening, I had an extra-large slice of humble pie.
Looking back on those days, I realize how fortunate I was to have a mother who always encouraged me to use my voice. Moreover, she modeled that behavior herself. She was always ready to speak up when she saw something was not right, whether in her workplace, in our church, our community or in our family. The only thing she would not tolerate was giving up.
The first time I ran away from home was also the last. When you learn how to use your voice, and those in power are willing to listen, there is seldom reason to check out.