Standing Up By Sitting in Discomfort

“Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”

-Colin Kaepernick

I apologize to any arachnophobes out there for not giving you an advance warning, but when I stumbled upon this little guy in my garden this week, I knew I needed to share him. I’m not usually a fan of spiders, but I found myself pleasantly surprised by this arachnid spotting. His camouflaged hiding place in my basil perfectly suited his lime green existence, and I was happy our plant could provide a safe spot to rest his eight legs and close his many eyes. Until the giant human being came upon him, anyway.

When you think about it, it must be terrifying to live in the food chain knowing your best chance of survival is to avoid anything neutral colored. The neon green works in a basil plant, but take a step onto the black pavement or brown dirt, and he surely stands out like a beacon for the mockingbirds in our backyard. Not to mention the jays, cardinals, lizards, snakes, geckos…

Yet another potential predator: the red-bellied woodpecker.

The next day, I walked by and saw my spider in the same basil plant again, but this time his presence elicited less wonder and more impatience. I needed to de-flower the basil to help the plant grow fuller, but the tiny spider would not move. I gently urged it to move over to one of the several other unoccupied basil cabanas, but he refused to budge. Aware of my relative gigantic size, I was not expecting this. In being gentle, I was trying not to frighten him too much (for his sake, but also because I feared he might react by jumping on me…), but even with more aggressive prodding, he stood his ground–er, leaf.

Although it was mildly frustrating, I chose to give in and move on. Was de-flowering one basil stem so important that I needed to evict the tiny green spider from his safe house? No, it wasn’t. And, truthfully, it made me respect the the little bug even more than I would have otherwise.

It’s funny what happens when we stand up for ourselves, isn’t it? No matter the situation, the stakes always seem high whenever we must gather the courage to do or say something that may be perceived as subversive. And whether it’s something as seemingly simple as voicing your opinion in a meeting or confronting someone you love about a difficult topic, or something more objectively risky as protesting in the streets or speaking out against a powerful person, it’s usually impossible not to feel a heightened sense of fear when we do. Even if we may be experts at masking it on the outside.

But, those times when you do ignore the pit in your stomach and speak up, it seems to garner more respect and credibility than staying silent ever would, doesn’t it?

Arthur never seems to have a problem standing up for himself.

I don’t know about you, but when I think back to the instances where I stood up for myself or for something I knew to be right, I feel proud. Even in those situations where it didn’t ultimately change the outcome, I still felt a sense of integrity–either in staying true to myself or to my beliefs–that makes me glad I chose to take that risk.

So, then, why don’t we do it more often? Why are we humans, who have more relative safety and fewer things to fear, often unwilling to show the same courage that a tiny, vulnerable invertebrate showed without hesitation?

I’m no psychologist or anthropologist, but I have to imagine it has a lot to do with the relative complexity of our minds. In situations where we have nothing rationally to fear–bodily injury, death, or even some quantifiable non-physical harm–our brains are masters at creating fears that feel just as real. Even if the worst possible outcome is objectively minor, like feeling momentarily embarrassed or uncomfortable, we often still avoid these situations as if they could lead to our demise.

Trees are also experts at settling in for the long haul.

Sitting in discomfort is not…well, comfortable. Unless it’s something we perceive as necessary or beneficial to us, like exercising, agreeing to a new work assignment, or engaging in a difficult conversation with someone we care about, we generally try to avoid being uncomfortable. It’s the primary driver of success behind such mega-brands as La-Z-Boy, Amazon, Netflix, UberEats…(the list goes on indefinitely). Because who would want to sit on a hard couch if you could sink into a lush, supportive cloud that reclines? And why would anyone want to forfeit time and subject themselves to other people, who are uncomfortably different and similarly imperfect, when we can stay in our cocoons and order entertainment, meals, and practically anything else to “magically” appear at our doorsteps and through our screens?

Of course, I’m one of the worst offenders in this area. I only like to engage in manual labor when the cost benefit analysis weighs heavily in my favor. If it doesn’t, I would much rather lay on the couch and read or watch tv. And as someone with social anxiety, I practically have to force myself to interact with other people, even when I know I’ll be happy I did when the time comes. (You can imagine how pronounced the silver lining of quarantine was for me…)

Gardening has continued to be an exceptional anti-social activity during quarantine.

But, I also know that discomfort is where growth happens. And as one of those annoyingly devoted students of self-improvement (just glance at my bookshelf for confirmation), I’ve recently been attempting to embrace discomfort. Right now, I’m dealing with discomfort in my career path, trying to understand uncomfortable truths about inequality, and facing personal fears by standing up and respectfully addressing things in my life that I haven’t had the courage (or inclination) to address until now.

I don’t know about you, but I find all of this discomfort incredibly challenging. It seems much of it stems from the discomfort of uncertainty, which is only magnified by the inescapable collective uncertainty of a global pandemic. Any chance that vaccine is ready yet? No? I’m going to have to continue to be patient without any end in sight? Oh, okay then.

I’m not even certain about when to harvest this eggplant, even though its weight is clearly causing discomfort for the rest of the plant.

If you’ve handled discomfort and uncertainty in your life, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below. In the meantime, perhaps this week’s purpose-driven life can help us learn to sit in the discomfort–of uncertainty, of inconvenient truths, or anything uncomfortable life throws at us–and help us to hold our ground. Especially when the giant finger nudging us to move out of discomfort belongs to our own hand.

This week, we will examine the fight of Colin Kaepernick, civil rights activist and former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. He is, of course, well known for kneeling during the national anthem as a protest against racial injustice, but what can his journey to find his purpose show us about standing up for we believe in while trying to find ours? Let’s find out.

Colin Kaepernick was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1987. His father, a Black man, separated from his mother, a white woman, shortly before Kaepernick was born. Without the resources to raise her son as a single mother, Kaepernick’s mother placed him for adoption with a white couple when he was a newborn.

Kaepernick lived with his adoptive parents in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin when he was young. As recent as 2000, Black residents made up less than 1% of the population of the county where Kaepernick spend his earliest years. By the age of four, however, his parents moved with him and their two older biological children to California.

Kaepernick as a child. Credit: Twitter

Once in California, Kaepernick thrived in sports from a young age. By the time he was eight, he played punter and defensive end for his youth football team. The next year, he became starting quarterback and completed his first long pass for a touchdown.

Kaepernick at a Green Bay Packers game when he was young.

Kaepernick wasn’t solely talented in football, however. In high school, he played football, basketball, and baseball, and he was an all-state athlete in each sport his senior year. At the same time, Kaepernick was an excellent student as well, graduating with a 4.0 GPA.

Kaepernick in high school.

Although he was a standout athlete in all three sports, Kaepernick received the most collegiate interest in his talents as a baseball player. He received several scholarship offers to pitch at various universities, but he was determined to play college football instead. As a result, he took the one scholarship offer the received to play football at University of Nevada, Reno.

In college, Kaepernick’s success continued as he put up exceptional numbers in passing yards, passing touchdowns, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns, and he received several honors from the Western Athletic Conference, including first team all-WAC quarterback and Co-Offensive Player of the Year. In 2009 after his sophomore year, Kaepernick was also apparently drafted to play baseball for the Chicago Cubs in the 43rd round, but he chose not to sign. By the end of his senior year, Kaepernick became the first and only quarterback to pass for over 10,000 yards and rush over 4,000 years in the history of Division I college football.

Kaepernick playing in college. Credit: John Byrne/Nevada Media Services

After graduating in 2011 with a 4.0 GPA and a business degree, Kaepernick was drafted to the San Francisco 49s as a backup quarterback. He didn’t see much time during his first season, but in his second season he fought to become starting quarterback and led the 49ers to the playoffs. In his first postseason game, Kaepernick set an NFL record for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a single game. He ultimately led his team to the 2013 Superbowl against the Baltimore Ravens, but in spite of an excellent performance by Kaepernick, they lost 31-34.

The next season, Kaepernick again led the 49ers to the playoffs before losing in the NFC Championship game, and in 2014 he signed a six-year $126 million contact extension with the team. The next two seasons were difficult for Kaepernick, as coaching changes and injuries affected his play. Privately, he was also struggling with his outrage at the flagrant and unceasing incidents of police brutality against Black people.

Kaepernick at the 2013 Suerbowl. Credit: Mike Ehrmann

In 2016, Kaepernick decided it was time to use his platform to affect real change in this area. First, he and his partner created the “Know Your Rights Camp,” whose stated mission is “to advance the liberation and well-being of Black and Brown communities through education, self-empowerment, mass-mobilization and the creation of new systems that elevate the next generation of change leaders.” He also made a “Million Dollar Pledge,” where he committed to donating $100,000 per month to “organizations working in oppressed communities” for ten months. Even though these were tangible, steps of no small importance, Kaepernick knew he needed to put more on the line to make a greater impact.

As a result, in August 2016 Kaepernick began protesting police brutality by sitting during the national anthem at a preseason game. His decision to sit went unnoticed initially, but during a postgame interview he made it clear that this was an intentional act of nonviolent protest saying, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”

Kaepernick knew from the start that taking this stand would be a huge risk for him and his career. He acknowledged the potential fallout in the first interview saying, “If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.” Kaepernick knew he was entering a period of uncomfortable uncertainty, but he decided standing up for himself and the cause he cared most about was worth it.

San Francisco 49ers player Eric Reid kneeling with Kaepernick. Credit: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Throughout the 2016 season, Kaepernick protested police brutality and racial inequality during the national anthem before every game. After sitting at first, he began kneeling after another player who was a former Green Beret suggested that kneeling would be more respectful of the military. Kaepernick gave few interviews around that time and began scaling back his social media in an attempt to control the narrative, but more conservative fans and commentators still decried his actions as “anti-American.” He was booed at games and vilified in the media even as he maintained his protest was an act of patriotism: “Once again, I’m not anti-American. I love America. I love people. That’s why I’m doing this. I want to help make America better.”

In spite of his explanation and the support he received from countless Americans, including President Obama, Kaepernick suffered as a result of his activism. He opted out of his contract with the 49ers after the season ended in 2017, and even though other similarly-situated quarterbacks were signed, Kaepernick remained a free agent. He has not played an NFL game since. Although a confidentiality agreement prevents us from knowing the full details, a settlement agreement with the NFL in 2018 seems to support the assumption that he was, in fact, blackballed by coaches in the league because of his protests.

Credit: Getty Images

After Kaepernick’s last game with the NFL, however, the full force of his protests seemed to take hold. In the 2017 season, other players continued to kneel in protest, enraging President Trump. Trump’s venomous tweets and calls to fire any player who refused to stand during the anthem led to a reversal in thought by many in the league, including coaches and owners who joined by kneeling in protest as well.

But, it still didn’t lead to Kaepernick rejoining the NFL. After leaving the 49ers, Kaepernick continued expressing his desire to return and play for another team. Instead, he has been forced to sit in the discomfort of watching from the sidelines knowing that his chances to return will only continue to wane with time.

These last few years could not have been easy for Kaepernick, but there were some bright spots. In 2019, Nike released an award-winning ad reminding the world of his courageous stand against injustice. He continued working with Nike, counseling them on race-related issues, but it seems Kaepernick’s main focus has shifted to his activism.

Most recently, NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell, who voiced his opposition to Kaepernick’s protests and backed a 2017 ruling that players could no longer kneel during the national anthem, issued a statement about the NFL’s “ongoing efforts” to address systemic issues in the wake of the brutal killing of George Floyd.

I have to imagine this quasi-validation doesn’t change the discomfort and uncertainty Kaepernick endures to this day, not just as someone with unfulfilled career potential, but also as someone viscerally aware of the fact that it has taken years for someone like Goddell to even release a statement recognizing racial inequality.

Credit: Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

And yet, Kaepernick has never flinched since he started down this road. He set aside his personal ambitions in favor of taking a stand. And even though he has lived in the discomfort of the aftermath since, he never expresses regret. His commitment has remained as steadfast, as he has said, “I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed.”

So, what can we learn from Colin Kaepernick’s fight to find his purpose of using his NFL platform to protest police brutality and spark the national debate that laid the groundwork for today’s movement?

Before giving my thoughts, I think it’s important to note that Kaepernick’s journey is not over yet, and while it’s extremely unlikely that he will play in the NFL again, I’m hopeful he will be recognized for his contributions and universally lauded for the courage that he showed. News of a recent deal with Disney and EPSN seems to point in that direction, but I’ll be waiting to see the full extent of his vindication.

Until that time, I think the most important thing we can learn from Kaepernick’s journey thus far is that we may have to endure great personal sacrifice to find and live our ultimate purpose.

For us, this might mean upsetting or disappointing people whose opinion matter to us, giving up a title or some other form of prestige, or perhaps something more tangible like a pay cut. In the end, though, I have to believe that just as with Kaepernick and our little spider friend, choosing to stand up for ourselves and our fight will be worth more than anything we must sacrifice along the way.

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