My Dear Ivy,
Two letters ago I told you that you are strong. In my previous letter I urged you not to let that strength prevent you from asking for help when you need it.
In this letter, I want to write about using your strength to help the people who need you.
Again, like I said in my last note, I’m not talking here about the people you will encounter (and sadly, such encounters are all but inevitable) who assume that you exist to help them, and that your value as a person is dependent on how much you do so.
I’m talking about the real, genuine cases (which are also inevitable) of people who truly need your help.
These might be people reaching out to you, as I urged you to reach out in your last letter, seeking to expand their knowledge and their perspectives by tapping into yours. Help them.
But there’s another type of person who needs your help as well.
To understand this one, you need to understand something about the world you’re growing up in. You live in one of the most prosperous nations in the history of the world, with one of the highest standards of living anywhere on the planet. You are growing up comfortably situated in what is called this country’s “middle class.” We are not super-wealthy, but you will never have to worry about missing a meal because we can’t afford food. You will never have to worry about not having clothes to wear, or a roof of some sort over your head, or medical care when you need it. You are growing up with two parents who are home to have dinner with you each evening, and who are relentlessly devoted to your well-being. You are growing up as part of the “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant” demographic that often constitutes the “default” in this country, and you will never have to worry about not recognizing yourself in some element of this country’s history or popular culture.
You need to understand that not everyone you will meet has that experience. There are people who don’t enjoy the same standard of living you do. You will probably hear your mom and me worrying on occasion about money – but for us it’s a matter of worrying whether we’re going to be able to pay for a car repair or afford a certain type of meal. There are people, even in your own town, who don’t have a car, and who have no idea if they will be able to afford their next meal at all.
More subtle, but just as real, is the fact that there are people – some of whom are also “middle class” and reasonably well off financially, some of whom you know personally, some of whom are dear friends – who don’t have the same experience you do with regard to this nation’s culture. As much as I hate it, you will someday learn that some people are viewed as less, simply because of their culture, their heritage, their language, their religion, or the color of their skin. Much as you will experience people who think less of you because you are a girl, there are people all around you who will be thought of as “less” for equally stupid and superficial reasons.
Sometimes you may see it happen, right in front of you.
And it is your job, in those moments, to protect them – the people who aren’t well-situated to be able to protect themselves. It is your job to stand up to the person who is treating you as more because of your skin color, and treating someone else as less because of his or hers. It is your job to use your privileged position in defense of those who are vulnerable in ways you are not.
You need, as I wrote in my last letter, to learn when it is ok to ask for help. But you also need to learn that there are times when you are the one who needs to help. There may, in fact, be times when you’re the only one who can.
It’s easy to miss those moments when they occur. Sometimes it may be as simple as standing up for someone in a conversation, shutting down someone else’s insulting or demeaning remarks. Other times it may be speaking out when you see someone in danger or being mistreated. As with many of the things in these letters, it’s a matter of training yourself to be on the lookout for opportunities – in this case, the opportunity to step in and protect someone who is in a more vulnerable position than you are.
I promise that I will do the same for you. All I’m asking you here is to take the privilege and protection I’ve been able to give to you by virtue of our relative prosperity, and use it to help others as well – especially when they are unable to do so themselves.
And keep in mind the struggle I mentioned in my last letter. Asking for help is hard. Keep in mind that not everyone around you who needs help will be able to ask for it.
Keep your eyes open for the needs – both asked and unasked – and use that wonderful, incredible, strong personality of yours to do whatever you can to protect those who need it.
I love you.