The Ice Cream Man
by Heather Shayne Blakeslee
It’s hard not to feel as though the entire country has gone crazy. The barrage of violence at home and abroad and the continued struggle for civil rights has everyone on edge. The feeling that the truth is on permanent vacation has added to the Orwellian overtones of our lives. In the midst of the madness it’s important to acknowledge that in order to right the ship, we have to be strong—and sane.
Years ago, I had a nervous breakdown in a shoe store.
At the time, I was raising money for a Quaker green building project that had me thinking about peace and social justice all day. At night, I was reading and studying about the impacts on people and planet that result from a global economy fueled by a hyped-up consumer culture.
I started feeling as though I was living in the Matrix and could finally see the code behind a mass illusion. If I saw a commercial for an oversized hamburger, I would see the horror of a factory farm. If I walked by a store with its door open blasting the street with air conditioning, I saw American soldiers guarding oil fields. In the shop window filled with cheap sneakers were the faces of Chinese children suffering from cancer caused by polluting factories. I couldn’t get the images out of my head.
That was a problem, because I needed to buy a pair of shoes. Mine were disintegrating on my feet.
I walked into a store on South Street, and started looking at labels. What company? What country? What materials? I asked the poor clerk a hundred questions that could easily have landed me in a skit on Portlandia where Carrie Brownstein might deadpan, “Did the cobbler turn off the water when he brushed his teeth at night?”
I weighed options for an hour as I became more and more agitated, more and more convinced that I couldn’t buy anything, not there, not anywhere, not ever.
It was a relief when I saw my brother’s name ringing through on my phone. For 10 minutes, I unloaded my anxieties uninterrupted. He responded with characteristic, caustic wit.
“So!” he said cheerily in the face of my anxiety. “How’s that working out for you?”
I laughed. It felt good.
“Ahhh… Not very well, I guess?”
“OK then!” he said, and we carried on. When I hung up, I said to myself, “OK. Go back in there and buy a pair of shoes. The world is not going to end if you buy a pair of shoes today.”
I then resolved myself to two things. The first was to continue to work for large-scale, system-wide change, so that any person could walk down the street and buy a reasonably priced pair of shoes without it wrecking the planet or giving a raw deal to some faraway person.
I also resolved that I wasn’t going to go crazy while I did it.
I realized that I would be no good to myself, to my family or to my community if I were emotionally paralyzed and off rocking in a corner somewhere. I got a therapist and let go a little of my strict and self-imposed rules. I’m still careful about what I buy, but sometimes we need to treat ourselves to whatever it is that’s going to help us continue to stand up for what we believe in, whether it’s a pair of shoes or an ice cream sundae. It’s so important that we keep working for change, calling out our politicians and fighting injustice together. While we take care of each other, let’s also take care of ourselves—even treat ourselves. Laugh a little.
Let’s not become the cobbler’s daughter, hobbled as we march in protest with bare feet.
A generic social & biological term for this might be "moderation". Not at all sexy, especially among the activist psyche of so many of us.
And its opposite perhaps is "militancy", although not in reference to armies & wars, but in single-mindedness with judgment.
I think I was lucky to have been raised with a moderation-center inside: hasn’t diminished my ire or joy, but when applied through a compassionate & empathic lens it fosters constructive engagement. Thanks, as always, for Heather & all my nonfanatical friends.