The silences between me and my grandfather grow. The more he speaks, the less I say. He is ignorant, but not stupid. He lingers longer than he should in the silences, desperate for validation, for connection to a family he suspects no longer accepts him for who he is. He finally leaves, limping away back across the shared yard that separates our homes. There is no resolution for either of us.
Perhaps it is cowardice on my part. I don’t want to lose a man who has been a constant in my life, even as he spouts social vitriol as a matter of course. I fear confrontation because I am not nearly as sure of myself, my liberalism, my instinct for social justice, as he is sure in his dogma of social exclusion, fiscal Darwinism. I am young, he is old. I am inexperienced, he has decades of life behind him. Respect for the elder is long lost, but the intimidation of a long life remains, to those with a sense of humility at least. I trust my own ignorance more than I am certain of his. I remind myself of Yeats, a cliche who nonetheless remains insightful for his time and ours: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity”. Whatever else you might say of him, my grandfather’s anger is passionate and motivating. I have no such passion for life, an apathy born of a comfortable, middle-class upbringing. Comfort does not breed revolutionaries without concentrated intent, and more rarely, without a privileged conceit. These are personal failing which plague not merely my relationship with my grandfather, but my life composite.
Recognizing these personal failings, I nonetheless believe there is legitimacy in a certain kind of silence. There is a silence that smothers the rantings of a madman. There is the silence of a shunning. There is the silence of the persevering laborer, working to implement change, not wasting breath on those who never will. Whatever it’s the source, silence must be justified. So I strive to justify mine.
I give to just causes. I call my representatives. I educate myself on matters of social justice and political controversy. Perhaps most important of all, I participate in my democracy. I educate myself on my representatives and I vote. I vote even when I believe it will make no difference, so that I may say to myself, if no one else, “I have not been silent.” It is not all that I can do, but something has been done.
There comes a point where people are lost to you. My grandfather cannot be saved because he believes he is already saved. He is white, evangelical, blue-collar America–he was born saved. So I will not seek to save him. I will seek to save myself, to save my children, to save those who cannot save themselves. I may be silent; but in silence, I will work out my own salvation.