How late is too late to say something?
From its start in 1906, A Bintel Brief was a pillar of the Forward, helping generations of Jewish immigrants learn how to be American. Now our columnists are helping people navigate the complexities of being Jewish in 2020. Send questions to [email protected].
I volunteer helping to run a Jewish group that has been unable to meet or do anything for months because of the virus. We’ve been trying to put out an email in support of Black Lives Matters in the wake of all the protests, which I’m in support of. But everyone is very stressed about the phrasing, making actionable commitments and not being just another empty statement. But we’re not even able to perform our main function — how much can we really commit to doing?! We’ve rewritten the email about a thousand times, someone has a major issue with every draft, and now it’s been weeks and I feel like it’s too late to say anything. Doesn’t it look just as bad that we’re this late saying anything? Can we just fly under the radar this time?
— Too Late
Dear Too Late,
Buckle your seatbelt and get to writing.
You’re right, it is very late for your organization to be still drafting your message, but you are not allowed to “fly under the radar.” None of us can.
Remember Moses and all of his grand excuses when God asked him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt? First, he told God, “They won’t believe me, and they won’t listen to me.” (Exodus 4:1). God taught him how to turn a rod into a snake and the waters of the Nile into blood, so the Israelites would give Moses some cred. Still, Moses came back with, “Please, my Lord, I have never been good with words… not in the past and also not now… I’m slow of speech and tongue.” (Exodus 4:10) So God promised to give Moses the right words to say.
Moses’s excuses kept coming, but God’s answer remained firm: you can and you must.
I’ll admit, I’m a grand excuse maker. I’ve lost out on friendships, job prospects and trust by being late or unresponsive. I’ve stayed quiet about racial inequality and assumed somebody smarter and more charismatic would say what needed to be said. In the past few months, even when I did go to protests, I stood in the back; I echoed chants at half-volume.
Learn a bisel Yiddish with Rukhl Schaechter’s “Word of the Day” video series on YouTube.
But I read this quote from Maya Angelou just this morning: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Too Late, you and I know better. We know that silence equals violence. When we say nothing, we leave our audience guessing whether we agree or disagree; whether we’re apathetic or ignorant or counting on someone else to do the talking for us. When we spend all of our time trying to craft the perfect something to say, we’re not making the situation any better — we might even be doing active harm. If your organization never says anything for fear of making an empty statement, you might inadvertently make the opposite statement instead.
Plus, spoiler alert: there is no perfect way to phrase your message. There will be someone offended or taken aback by your words no matter how many times you change it. And that’s scary — but not nearly as scary as facing racism and violence daily.
So urge your organization to get over themselves and hit send. Today. It’s far better to make these mistakes than to say nothing at all.
Abby Sher is a writer in Maplewood, New Jersey. Got a question? Send it to [email protected]