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On Motion

My steadfast companion for the past two months, paradoxically, has been constant motion. Every day I cycle past new terrain and new vistas; and, more importantly, past thousands of new people. The people I pass are at once instantly familiar and entirely foreign. The shared amusement with a mother over her daughter’s antics is a scene that could play out in hundreds of countries; but the unique headdress and hand gestures and dialect are specific to places I’ve just discovered.

I find myself one morning at the foot of a massive climb. As I slowly grind up the incline, a small child races beside me, chattering ceaselessly in a language I wish I understood. We crest the hill together, at which point I gradually gain speed. My bike begins to inch away from him – first by mere feet, and then by a steadily increasing expanse of space. He continues to run after me, unwilling to accept that our velocities have become unmoored. Eventually he stops, his chest heaving with the weight of things there was not time to say. I turn to see him rooted to the same spot before the next rise obscures him from view. Given the relativity of motion, it’s hard to say which one of us is moving forward and which one is standing still.

I think about these questions of motion a great deal as I cycle across the continent, in the freshness of the morning and on long, grueling afternoons. The idea of motion helps me formulate the larger project on which I have embarked; it also challenges me to interrogate my decisions in a deeply personal way.

On the more philosophical level, I wonder sometimes if the ideal of equality is not best measured by an equality of acceleration. Equality is often viewed through the lens of equal opportunity, but this conception strikes me as problematic in its flexibility. What do we mean by equal opportunities? People are clearly born with different capacities, both mentally and physically. And I’ve never been convinced that absolute equality of wealth, regardless of the choices someone makes, is either a viable or a desirable goal. People will always move with different speeds, and on different modes of transportation, and along different roads.

imageBut when I think about what gives my life meaning and hope, a fundamental component of that dignity is the power and ability to change my velocity. I have the means and opportunity to leave one job and start a new one, to further my education, to live abroad. It is clear from my travels and from even a minimal familiarity with current events and history that I occupy a privileged space. Too often, people are trapped by the lack of resources, by poverty, by the patterns of history and current governance that marginalize groups of people based on their race, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation. All human beings are worthy of dignity by virtue of their birth; but to realize the full potential for that humanity, people must have the ability to make choices, to feel their lives are in motion, and to accelerate. Here I use that term as a physicist would, meaning simply a change in velocity: sometimes slowing down is better than speeding up. And a change in direction may be more necessary than a change in speed.

What can we do as citizens of the world to guarantee that as many people as possible have this feeling of autonomy, this capacity to alter the trajectory of their lives? First and foremost we must fight for the equal application of the law. Many of the great struggles of the past have been waged over what should be the simple question of whether all people should be treated as people. In the United States, the Fourteenth Amendment righted a great wrong when it stated that all citizens, regardless of race, were entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizenship. A century later, the civil rights movement attempted to realize the promise of those words. The struggle continues to this day: police brutality and incarceration rates disproportionately affect people of color, and these statistics are only the tip of an iceberg that floats in a sea of historical disadvantage. Until we find ways to confront and address our painful history, we leave whole swathes of society spinning in eddies that are agonizingly outside the powerful sweep of the river.

The struggle for LGBT rights has sometimes been dubbed the new civil rights movement, and in many fundamental ways the issues are similar. In several states and in the majority of countries around the world, LGBT people are denied the right to seek employment and housing free from discrimination, and to have their relationships recognized and treated with dignity by the governments who represent them. It is difficult to feel forward momentum in personal relationships when those connections are legally deemed less worthy of respect. And it is all too easy to internalize a government’s unequal treatment and the messages of support such a regime receives for its policies of marginalization. There is nothing that prevents a person’s progress toward dignity so effectively as that person’s self doubt that he or she is worthy of dignity in the first place.

These civil rights struggles are far from over, but even if we make substantial progress in the fight to apply laws equally regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, nationality, or wealth, it is not enough. An equality of legal treatment does not, by itself, ensure an equality of acceleration. Without basic necessities such as clean water, housing, and health care, political rights such as voting are difficult to access. Many legal scholars refer to these underlying rights as socioeconomic rights, or “positive rights”. To achieve them, they require positive duties on the part of government and other actors to take steps towards their fulfillment. Unlike negative rights, such as the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, these rights are about what the government must do, not about what the government cannot do.

The South African Constitution, unlike the Constitution of the United States, guarantees these positive rights to all citizens of the country. I spent a year working in the South African legal system, and it was fascinating to see how South African courts attempted to make such rights legally enforceable. After all, adequate housing for all is a laudable goal, but one look at the informal settlements around Johannesburg or Cape Town is enough to show how far South Africa is from realizing that ideal. What role can the judicial branch play in requiring the political branches of government to take action? There have been a number of cases in which the Constitutional Court has addressed this question, holding that the socioeconomic rights enshrined in the Constitution create positive duties on the government.

In the early 2000s, President Thabo Mbeki refused to accept the current science around HIV and AIDS and his government failed to provide South African citizens with Nevirapine – a new drug on the market that had proven effective in HIV patients and was able to reduce dramatically the rate at which mothers transmitted the virus to their children during childbirth. A nonprofit organization, the Treatment Action Campaign, took the government to court. In the landmark judgment of Minister of Health v Treatment Action Campaign, the Constitutional Court held in 2002 that the right to health care required the government to take reasonable steps towards a progressive realization of this right. Furthermore, the Court ruled that the government’s failure to provide Nevirapine to its citizens violated this duty.

The legal reasoning in the Treatment Action Campaign case mirrors some of my thinking about the equality of acceleration. Courts cannot simply require government and other actors to achieve certain rights; but in some situations, they may be able to help ensure that there is motion towards these goals. Certainly government is not the only entity that can foster these rights. Private business, religious groups, and civil society organizations all have roles that, in some cases, may be even more effective in guaranteeing these rights. But we must be vigilant to ensure that government stays focused on an equality of acceleration as one of its essential and most important goals – both by applying laws equally to all of its citizens regardless of race, sexuality, and other markers that can be used to divide; and by working towards a society in which all its members have access to health care, housing, and other basic needs necessary for a dignified existence.

One of the most important of these needs is education. Critical thinking, constant questioning, and continual reassessment are the motors that drive progress towards the realization of other rights and towards the feeling of personal movement and freedom in individual lives. For me, discovering a diversity of viewpoints during college and later in life helped me achieve self confidence as a gay man and opened up a wide world of travel and other experiences. The support I received from my parents helped supply the means, but the education I received from my family and schooling is what provided the fuel and desire. Perhaps the first step towards a feeling that you have the autonomy to change your life is the knowledge that such change is possible.

imageEducation also helps shore up our resolve in the struggle for an equality of acceleration – even in the face of a constant onslaught of current events in which societies are moving away from this ideal, not towards it. Literature, art, science, and history all help us understand that, while something is being destroyed, something else is always being created. Like Sisyphus, we put our shoulders to the boulder and the effort of moving forward, even with the knowledge that this forward motion will not last. It’s easy to coast to the bottom of the hill, but where we must muster our strength is when the road starts climbing and we must decide whether to keep pedaling.

It is not only these profound questions of human rights and equality that engage me as I cycle through the countryside. Every pair of eyes I pass also suggests questions of a more personal nature. I wonder how I can play an effective role to help LGBT people in Africa achieve a feeling of motion and a freedom of acceleration. I wonder what lies in store for me when the ride is over. Most hauntingly, I wonder how to live a life that’s in motion without leaving behind the people I love.

Staring at the night sky, I sometimes think of personal relationships as celestial bodies: some objects revolve around each other in a perpetual dance; others, like a comet slingshotting around the sun, pass for a brief moment before hurtling back into empty space, seeking an unknown goal or the warmth of other stars. How do you bend your trajectory to fit the motion of other people, and how do you know if your paths have diverged?

My decisions to come to South Africa a year ago and to follow that experience with the cycle trip have allowed me invaluable growth and joyous encounters that I would never give up. I’ve met lifelong friends, tested my physical and mental limits, and observed the world from new perspectives. Not surprisingly, though, these opportunities have come with sacrifices. My parents have both turned sixty in my absence. A beautiful and meaningful romantic relationship has foundered on the shoals of distance. Emails – far too many of them – have gone unanswered or unwritten. Close friends have celebrated marriages without me, while others have had babies and started families. There are children I’ve known and loved who have grown tall and thoughtful. As I move forward in distance, others seem to be moving forward in time. I worry that one day I’ll return like Peter Pan to find that Wendy is aged and unrecognizable.

I assume and hope that many of these sacrifices are only temporary. I expect that with old friends we will pick up where we left off as soon as our orbits realign. I trust that my parents will be around for belated celebrations. I take for granted that there will be time to say the things I have never learned how to say, that the gardens I have neglected to water will still flourish.

One lesson that cycling has taught me is how uncertain these assumptions are. Motion can be stopped as easily as it is started, sometimes in sudden and catastrophic ways. As I was waiting one afternoon at the crest of a hill above Addis Ababa for all the cyclists to arrive so we could ride into the city together, a local van pulled up carrying one of our riders, Terry, who was badly injured. A car had accidentally run Terry off the road, giving him a concussion and a broken arm. He was treated at a hospital in Nairobi and later flown back to Australia – luckily, he appears to be making a full recovery. But his accident was a reminder of how quickly our trajectories can change. The things I assumed there would be time to say or do may have evaporated like pools in the desert. The people to whom I hoped to return may be revolving in new orbits.

imageThese are difficulties that we all face even if we are not traveling. Living a life in motion doesn’t mean living a life of geographical exploration. My parents didn’t travel a great deal while I was growing up. My father worked as a professor of mathematics at a liberal arts college and my mother spent the time when she was not at home serving in local government and in a statewide organization. But my parents’ lack of travel did not render their lives motionless. They moved forward by serving their students, their communities, and by nourishing our family. They provided a solid foundation so that my brother, my sister, and I could make choices that were unavailable to them; so that we could explore a world that had fewer boundaries. It is a foundation for which I am immensely grateful.

There are so many ways of moving, of living. People all over the world find motion in their careers, in their families, in their communities. As Hamlet says, “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space.” A life of interior exploration can be as challenging, as treacherous, and as fulfilling as a life of exterior adventure. It can lead to new perspectives and to distancing from old relationships as surely as years of Circe’s embrace on the shores of some foreign isle.

But no matter how we find motion in our lives, whether externally or internally, the choices we make to shape that motion require sacrifices. We fight for our freedom of acceleration, for the ability to choose our speed and direction. Nevertheless, this ability is a double-edged sword. Every choice entails a path not taken; each decision creates the possibility for regret. How do we shape our life’s motion in a fulfilling way? How do we balance new experiences, career obligations, or personal revelations with the desire and need to cultivate longterm friendships, nurture families, and create communities? Put another way, how do we balance multiple passions that may pull our lives along divergent paths?

My friend Ofentse, who was a colleague in South Africa and whom I was able to visit last week in Nairobi, gave me one answer: prioritize personal relationships. It’s insane to use up all your energy on causes that are subject to the whim of notoriously corrupt governments, she remarked. I took Ofentse’s comment with a large dose of skepticism, as she is one of the people I know who is most passionately dedicated to a world of forward movement. But the warning to nourish and protect one’s personal life echoes comments I have heard from a number of sources.

I had an influential English teacher in high school named Ruth Michaud. At a stage when I was scared of the future, uncertain of my sexuality, and struggling to discover what I believed, Mrs Michaud saw me in a way that I wish I could have seen myself. I was not alone. The energy she poured into my creative output and development was the same energy she devoted to every student passing through her classroom. She surprised me in a conversation we had after I graduated college when she expressed doubt about whether her personal motion had been in the right direction. “I had so many students come and go,” she remarked. “And all the time I invested in them was time I didn’t spend on my son.”

I found Mrs Michaud’s comment heartbreakingly raw, but it wasn’t until later that I realized that in response I should have referenced a discussion I had with her in high school about The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro. The novel concerns a butler who sacrifices everything for his career, basing his decision on his philosophy that, as the servant of a great man, he is also able to contribute to the forward movement of the world. But what the reader knows, and what the narrator is unable to admit, is that his master is a dupe for the Nazis and anything but a paragon of humanity. The butler’s life is founded on a lie, and the reader must face the question: what is left at the remains of his day?

Mrs Michaud and I both saw the novel as a cautionary tale, one that encourages us to examine continuously and critically the assumptions that underlie our decisions so that we are ready to respond to that haunting question. When Mrs Michaud posed that query for herself, I wish I had pointed out a crucial distinction: unlike the butler’s unexamined beliefs, the assumptions underlying Mrs Michaud’s decisions about the balance between family and work were not false. The influence she exerted on me and on all of her students was real and powerful. In fundamental ways, she helped form me into a compassionate and critical thinker. She gave me the confidence to discover who I was, to stand up for my beliefs, and to encourage others to do the same.

Teachers, activists, and many others can and do make positive change. The energy and passion they pour into their work radiates outwards in ripples that can have unpredictable and sometimes unexpectedly large consequences. This effect does not obviate the need to seek a balance between passion for work or a cause and the energy invested in a family, a community, a partner. There is no easy formula for striking this balance, but what seems important to me is to make these choices and sacrifices with lucidity, with introspection, and with the humility that comes from constant questioning and reassessment. I wish I could have this conversation with Mrs Michaud now, but with her death this past year our trajectories have diverged irreparably.

imageAnd there, within that finiteness of time, lies the rub. I am torn between the love of old relationships and the thrill of what’s just around the next corner. As I traverse a foreign continent, I feel like I am rowing a very small boat on a very large ocean: the places and the cultures I have not yet explored leave me exhilarated and overwhelmed. Between harbors, the immense expanse of sky is both sheltering and isolating. I feel the motion of the waves even when I am on solid ground. It disorients me. Am I the child who stays panting behind, or the cyclist who forges steely-eyed ahead? Either way, the joy of people coming is tempered by the sadness of those who disappear over the horizon. I hope that one day I will travel past them again, or that they will return to me. Meanwhile, I think about the sanctity of time, and my increasing shortness of breath. I think about how to make decisions that are clear, critical, and balanced. I think about how to leave, and how to stay.

These questions will continue to challenge me for the rest of the trip. But with motion comes inertia, and for now I continue to ride – past smiles and sneers, and haunting glances that ask unanswered questions; past verdant mountains and haughty deserts and lines and lines of latitude; past bravery and injustice and new friendships and missed connections; and past streams of humanity in all its colors and smells and pettiness and sublimity. The kilometers tick by and I sometimes forget whether my odometer is measuring distance or time. Every so often, I am reminded of the things that are moving away from me. One afternoon, a momentary shadow alerts me to an eagle that is hurtling past far overhead. From my vantage point it is impossible to tell whether his wheeling circles are aimless or purposeful, playful or desperate.

Posted in Travel Blog.

7 Comments

  1. Pidgins (perhaps Chinese, too) don’t have the subjunctive tense as English does. Without the ability to question,”What would happen if…”, speakers of those languages focus on what they want and what they will do. It gives them peace of mind and more time to contemplate reality.

    I’ve heard it said that Ronald Reagan was testimony to the falsity of the maxim, “The unexamined life is not worth living”. It was said in a derogatory way. Maybe, though, there is something to just making the choices that come at us, living in our current reality, completing the journey without constant doubt or reevaluation.

    Until there is a crash.

    Which is what I take to be the point of your post.

    I am sorry for your losses.

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