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  • Writer's pictureKevin Graham

Know your place!

Our world is littered with success stories of people who refused to know their places. Athletes, artists, scientists, business leaders, social activists. I have my list of heroes. I’m sure you have your own. I’m currently reading Mockingbird, the updated 2016 edition of a biography on one of my heroes, Harper Lee. It seems an appropriate read as we navigate our way through these turbulent times.

Harper Lee was definitely one who refused to know her place. Among other stereotypes, she didn’t want to be the cute little girl, trapped in that “pink cotton penitentiary” as Scout described it. She didn’t want to become a lawyer like her father and sister, leaving law school just one semester shy of graduation. She also didn’t want to play the celebrity that came with the success of her novel and the movie that followed two years later. She rejected what the world expected of her, and carved out her own path and private place. She provided us with one of the greatest gifts of the 20th century. She explored her own world through words, in the voice of a child, articulating such an exquisite story about place. Every character in the story has an assigned place. Tom Robinson has a place. Boo Radley has a place. Atticus Finch, of course, holds an eternal mythical place in the hearts of American readers in search of their archetypal male. Scout, for her part, is in a perfect place to witness for all the great injustices of both forced and forbidden places.

Sixty years on, Harper Lee’s novel should be required reading for anyone seeking to better understand the meaning of place in our troubled world. You may go here. You must not go there. Says who, she asks? Says who?

Says society. Society has a framework of assigned places for us all, sometimes very clear, sometimes very muddy. This framework is a set of expectations based on what has worked best throughout history… for those in positions of power. When something works, they’ll argue, don’t mess it up!

When you look at history, however, our greatest achievements have come, not from doing the same things in the same ways as by our predecessors, but through the search beyond. We fall on, find, or create new places for ourselves and those who follow.

Places have a limited shelf life, I would contend, although we often hang on long past the logical finish lines. Hell! I’m 63 and still playing hockey, many years after my wife first said, “hang ‘em up”. Come to think of it, I don’t play very well, and I am reminded from time to time by teammates that I’m in the wrong place on the ice (I answer that a broken clock is still correct twice each day). Or maybe they mean it like my wife means it… suffice to say, the ‘expiry date’ has long faded away.

Economic scale is a product of creativity, not a source of creativity. When fully invested in a successful operation, the bean counters take over and incentives are high not to mess around with what works. Creativity is discouraged and our thinking becomes lazy and fixed.

Our picture of place in society is no different. For the most part, we’ve been chugging along, going about our business, minding our places, and hoping that everyone else will mind their places, too. Only with harsh shocks can we be jarred out of history on to a new path… to a new place.

Welcome to 2020. While we were minding our places, a whole lot of people, it seems, were very much minding the places we had in mind for them. It’s been quite a wakeup call, hasn’t it? Why should my place be what you say it is? Why should your place be what I say it is?

“Because that’s the way we’ve always done it” just doesn’t cut it anymore. History will again be eclipsed by the injection of creativity by those able to shake free from shackles of exclusion, forcing us to consider a new way of seeing the world… and everyone’s place in it, including our own. For an injection of creative problem solving, primed we are. These fresh ideas and novel perspectives will come through encouragement, not stifling, of diversity. Same old, same old in method will deliver only same old, same old in outcome. Diversity of viewpoint is and always will be the primary source of unpredicted advances. Life is messy in this way, and frustrating for those among us who are so tied to clean and clear assigned places. Success, coupled with complacency, is one of the best predictors of failure.

As for the shock, get over it, and get on with it, may be the best first step in the right direction, whatever that is.

What little I’ve accomplished in life has invariably followed being told it couldn’t be done or that I should better know my place. I’m nobody’s hero, but knowing my place has never been a strength for me. Going against the grain brings with it a certain gratification that just doesn’t come from any other place.

Lately, I’ve been wandering on to Facebook pages populated largely by unapologetic racists in hopes of turning just one person. Be assured, I’ve been very strongly advised on numerous occasions that I’m absolutely in the wrong place. You see, these people have a very fixed view of their place in the world, and are not at all interested in sharing that place. I’m surprised at how many they are and how ‘regular folk’ they are. From Atticus: “Every mob in every little Southern town is always made up of people you know.” I may regret this later, but I’ve decided that these are good places for me to be for a time. Gotta run… I need to go hammer some stakes in the ground. Yes, this is my place… for now. Anyone care to share a bumpy ride?

With respect,

Kevin Graham

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