In Finding Neverland, Johnny Depp plays J.M. Barrie, the man who wrote Peter Pan, inspired by a little boy named Peter Llewelyn Davies and his family. In one of the early scenes, he’s just befriending Peter and his brothers in the park, and he tries to entertain them by pretending to be the ringleader in an imaginary circus where his dog Porthos is the dancing bear.
Peter Llewelyn Davies: This is absurd. It’s just a dog.
J.M. Barrie: Just a dog? Just?
J.M. Barrie: Porthos, don’t listen!
J.M. Barrie: Porthos dreams of being a bear, and you want to shatter those dreams by saying he’s just a dog? What a horrible candle-snuffing word. That’s like saying, “He can’t climb that mountain, he’s just a man”, or “That’s not a diamond, it’s just a rock.” Just.
It reminds me of God calling Jeremiah to be a prophet, and his timid attempt to decline the job. “Oh no, not me. I’m just a kid. You want someone else.”
No dice. God is not so easily disheartened, and Jeremiah, the young son of a priest who might not have even decided what he wanted to be when he grew up yet, became the prophet of God’s people who led them through some of their darkest and most hopeless days. He was the one who told them on the cusp of their captivity, “Look, I’m not gonna lie to you. It’s going to get bad. Horribly, horribly bad. Our entire way of life is changing, but it’s not dying. We will have suffering like we’ve never known, but we’ll survive. God has a future and hope for us yet. Hold on.”
Imagine if that voice of hope for God’s people had refused to speak because he was just a boy. Imagine if a voice like that sat in our pews today and was too afraid to express a call to something great because she’s just a girl. Imagine if a voice that powerful dwells in every child (spoiler alert: it does), and we shut down the voice of the Divine in them because we tell them they are not messengers and innovators and bits of goodness in this world, instead they are just…
Just being silly or over-reacting.
Just a victim.
Just have an attitude problem.
Just a woman.
Just not smart enough for this.
Just too smart for their own good.
All these kiddos grow up to be us, carrying around our little knapsacks of nurture and hardship in whatever measure we’ve been given them. And sometimes–a lot of times– we carry those just’s around with us, too, reciting quietly to ourselves from an old script that never should’ve been written. We are each people God has gifted with a vision and a voice all our own. Despite that, though, we are so eager to throw our voices away, to muffle them in someone else’s or to bind them up in qualifiers. How many times do we throw that one little candle-snuffing word into our conversation like a grenade, blowing up the force behind whatever else we’ve said?
“But it’s just an idea…”
“Well, I was just thinking…”
“I’m just saying.”
We do a lot of role play in my social work classes (mostly so we can go ahead and get our nerves and awkwardness out on each other instead of actual clients), and one class involved a situation where everyone had to act out a major debate during a staff meeting in a nonprofit organization. Everybody was assigned a role, from Executive Director to case worker to intern, and they had to hash out this major decision that would drastically alter the course of their fictional organization. When the student playing the intern’s part spoke up, we all broke character and busted out laughing. He played it so perfectly, and as interns in different agencies all around town ourselves at the time, we couldn’t help but laugh at our incredibly accurate reflection.
“Well, ok… um, I think X. But I mean, I’m just an intern so I’m just kind of like making this up. I mean, I just think X. Ok, I don’t know. Nevermind…. sorry.”
It was a voice that felt it had no power except what the powerful voices around it allowed. It was a voice that said “just” because it felt like “just.”
Women do this more often than men. Despite all the positive messaging about self-confidence and independence we girls receive, we are still more likely to apologize, to hedge in conversation, and to defer to someone else’s ideas or decisions than the fellas in the room. Maybe not about the big stuff, like career paths or academic decisions and things like that, but the everyday small stuff, like what the plans are for dinner. Feminist though I am, my boyfriend and I even had to come up with a rule–I have to make at least every 8th decision about the small stuff, a system put in place so that I wouldn’t just indefinitely and instinctively say “Whatever you want to do sounds fine” for every decision about where to have dinner or what movie to watch for the rest of our lives. Somewhere along the way, I picked up deference to someone else as a default and it’s a tough habit to break. And I know I’m not the only one. Assertiveness is really only seen as a positive for men, particularly straight, white, well-educated, middle-to-upper class men. They can express themselves confidently and expect the kind of positive response we read about in magazine articles and self-help books about positivity and self-confidence. For all of us who fall outside of that bubble, though, what is considered “confidence” and “assertiveness” in a man of this category quickly becomes “bitchiness” and “aggression.” Pantene actually released an excellent promo video about this very thing. You can watch it here:
This seems, ironically, unjust. To value some voices above others–to hear those we like and expect more clearly than those we don’t– is an instinctive thing, but it’s troubling nonetheless. Even as I write this I’m aware that I represent a very privileged voice in my society–that when I do speak up for myself, it may be a little off-putting for some people, but I will probably ultimately get what I want because I happen to be white and well-educated. That’s disgusting. It shouldn’t matter, but it does. And I hate that. What do I do with that knowledge? There is a part of me that wants to stay silent, recognizing that I’ve already spoken for far more than my turn. And I think there are certainly times when that is exactly what I should do. But there is another part of me that wants to speak confidently and assertively to call out the system we’ve set up here. Our neighbors with voices that are privileged–the ones that aren’t just [insert dismissive term of your choice here]– are the least likely to notice their privilege; after all, everyone else is accommodating to them, not the other way around. If the people who see the problem don’t say anything about it, or just mention it in passing, then how will those who keep it in place (however unwittingly) ever realize what’s going on, much less work to fix it? You can’t change what you don’t see.
Here’s what I know (and I know because Dr. Seuss taught me), “unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better. It’s not.” So please don’t “I’m just little ole me” yourself out of speaking up. Don’t talk yourself into losing your nerve, and don’t let anyone else talk you into it either. You are fierce. You are brave. You have a voice we need to hear. Please use it, for all of our sakes.