What they can take from you

For some reason, I’ve been thinking about my grandfather a lot lately, and in particular, his last words to me. ‘Don’t let the man get you down,’ he said, a man who spent his entire life being the man, in a very real sense. But he chose to leave me with that little succinct contribution, and I’ve lived by it even as past of me has always wondered if he regretted his life’s work, or just thought it was generally good advice in a ‘trust no one’ sort of way. For whatever reason, that was what he thought was the most important thing for me to carry through life, no matter where I ended up.

They can’t take the sky from you.

Sometimes they say your personality is set in childhood, and you just kind of crystallise into it later in life. I guess maybe that’s true for me — I’ve always been stubborn and uncompromising, utterly disinterested in giving up on my values for the sake of convenience or someone else’s comfort. And that’s definitely calcified over the years, sometimes in response to people who like to criticise me for it. It’s a part of who I am. My integrity is important to me.

That might also come, though, from growing up with nothing. When you have nothing, in theory there’s nothing to take away, but there’s always the core of you, the thing that makes you yourself, on the table. If you cling to it, you’ve kept something back, made it impossible for the man to exert ownership over you. If you don’t, you’re stuck deep in his claws, thrashing, at his mercy. These are the kinds of things you think about when you are lying awake at night.

I don’t think that being poor is noble. I don’t think that being rich is noble. I think both are states of being informed by complicated social factors. I know what it was like to grow up in my particular kind of poverty and how it shaped me, and I know that, like my grandfather, my father always believed that as long as you hew to yourself, no one can take that from you. You are, in a sense, free, even as it seems like you are surrounded by terrible circumstances and bad choices.

Perhaps this is why I am thinking of my grandfather a lot, a man who fought through two wars, worked for an assortment of alphabet agencies, and spent his life deep in the bowels of the government’s secrets, including the dirty, dark, unpleasant ones. He worked through decades of presidential administrations and endless, cycling turnover. He wasn’t a politician, my grandfather. He was a spy. And while he had decades of institutional experience, his wasn’t a name you’d find on agency letterhead. He was a figure in the shadows.

My grandfather’s politics and mine likely wouldn’t be in close alignment today, but I do know that a lot of people like my grandfather are at work deep within the reaches of the government. They are ‘the man,’ but they are also facing the tensions he must have faced at times over how loyal they’re able to be. They’re required to serve their country through their agencies, but what if their country is betraying its values? What if the person at the head of the agency is not someone they can trust? When does loyalty have to include calculated disloyalty, a refusal to obey orders that are dangerous and wrong?

Maybe that’s what my grandfather meant when he whispered those words into my ear all those years ago, that the man isn’t infallible, that the man is comprised of many humans, that sometimes those humans must go against the man in order to do the right thing. As my country faces an uncertain future under a man who is manifestly unqualified for the job he has appropriated, a man who is surrounding himself with his ilk, greedy fingers grasping at every pie, we talk about the civil servants who can resist him and how they might do it, the defiance at government agencies that could make or break this country in the coming years.

Ethical refusal is a complicated issue that cuts in so many different directions — what I see as an ethical imperative another might not, and what someone sees as the only acceptable ethical stance may be repugnant to me. It’s why we have these labyrinthine chains of command and approval and discussion, with the goal of accomplishing things in the name of some vague entity, something value-neutral, something that only has the best interests of the country in mind. The man.

But I am not so sure that the man knows what’s best — I never was, and definitely am not now. There comes a time when resistance to the man is the moral imperative, a reminder that while they can take many things from us, while they can try to break us, while they can try to destroy our hearts and souls, the deepest parts of our beings, they cannot take our integrity. They cannot take our faith. They cannot take our trust. These are things that must be freely given, and they are things that we would do well to cling to, because at the end of the day, with my back against the wall, I would like to be able to say that I kept my integrity through it all.

There are bitter, dark times ahead of us, and they may be lonely and harsh. While they make take everything, while they may attempt to control the most private and personal parts of you, there is one thing they cannot take and they cannot have, and that is the core of your integrity. We are all of us facing difficult times and we are all of us facing difficult, dangerous, treacherous choices. Choose wisely, with your integrity at heart and your values at the fore, and don’t let the man get you down.