When this pandemic was well underway and I recognized that I would not quickly return to my normal life, I had an epiphany of sorts. Much of what I had taken for granted, such as being able to make a lunch date with a friend, was not a “given” but a privilege that could evaporate at any time with no notice. I was privileged and hadn’t even known it.

Lately I have been experiencing uncomfortable feelings that are difficult to articulate, and even harder to tolerate. The anger is easy for me to identify and even embrace, as it emboldens me, and makes me feel strong and powerful. Displacing my rage too often lately, though, is a feeling that sickens me. It feels like being pushed around, and it smacks of defeat, discouragement, impotence, powerlessness, and helplessness. It is a feeling that greatly disagrees with me and my constitution.

Even as a young adult, I had a high internal locus of control, the belief that outcomes are within my control rather than independent of my efforts. In my decision making, I tend to be guided by my strong principles, and I have been known at times to pursue what I feel is right even after I’ve been told it is not an option. Intermittently reinforced by my success turning a ‘no’ into a ‘yes’, I tend to view no’s as suggestions, not hard stops. I have a strong sense of agency, in short.

I don’t like to be pushed around any more than anyone, but abuse of power particularly enrages me. When I was 18, I took a leather skirt to the dry cleaners. When I came to pick it up, I discovered it had been ruined. Half the skirt was no longer a light-colored, distressed brown leather, but instead was a sleek, uniform dark brown. The owner did not apologize, offer to pay for it, or even offer to make the rest of the skirt the same dark color (which, frankly, looked better). Instead, the small, older man took my claim ticket, tucked it in his shirt pocket, smiled an evil smile, and said, “We’re starting a new transaction now.” It took every ounce of strength I had not to leap over the counter and grab the man by his wrinkled throat, but in a colossal act of restraint, I took him to small claims court instead. This man who thought he could do whatever he wanted to other people and get away with it could have been an SS guard in a former life and the President of the United States of America in this one.

Abuse of power infuriates me all the more when it impacts those with few resources and little agency or voice. Once, mistreated and lied to by a medical company, I became consumed with the thought that if they were doing it to me, they were also doing this to patients who may not know their rights or may be too sick to do anything about it and would simply fail treatment. Infuriated, in the name of every sick patient who ever lived or died, I breathed fire into a certified letter to the company, promising to contact every governing body including their own accrediting agency if they didn’t change their treatment, not only of me, but of all their patients. The CEO called me immediately, and while I was treated well thereafter with promises of similar treatment for all, it continued to trouble me that the typical patient would not have had access to the knowledge, resources, and sense of agency to risk taking a company like this head on. It was a luxury I had that many didn’t.

Still, I took it for granted that going toe-to-toe with people in power, or even just asking an authority figure to reconsider a ‘no’, was an option for me. I didn’t fully appreciate that my strong sense of agency was born of privilege, reinforced by success–or at least not abject failure of the sort that leads to hunger or homelessness. In short, I have never been sick enough, poor enough, or defeated enough to stay face down in the dust of the arena while being kicked in the stomach. In fact, it was largely a choice whether to be in the arena or the bleachers on any given matter, to be a participant or an observer in any given fight, all of which I could afford to lose–a choice most people who lack power and voice ever contemplate. Instead, they eat a diet of dust and sweat and blood and tears while I select such a diet a la carte from a restaurant with gluten-free and low-carb options.

All this explains why this feeling I have lately of being pushed around and powerless is so unpalatable to me. I have never dined on abject defeat and despair. The notion that I have no options, that I am helpless to change things, that nothing I do will make any difference is so foreign to me that even just contemplating it transiently horrifies me.

The Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said, “All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” She was speaking of gender inequality, but the same could be said for any groups of the powerful and powerless. Some people have never known anything other than a life with a foot on their neck and pervasive helplessness. You and I feel discouraged and demoralized because we have known courage and morale. We are gagging on the taste of defeat because it is foreign to our palates and not our usual fare. These uncomfortable, unpalatable feelings are reminders that it has been our long-standing privilege to have had any agency in our lives whatsoever and that it can dissipate anytime without notice. Repelling as these feelings may be, they summon us to use our privilege of agency and voice to lift the burden off the necks of those who have none.

We are being called to rise.