A few months ago, John was on a phone call with a physician who was asking his input about a new drug to help with opioid addiction. At the end of the call, as I walked into the room, John told him about our son’s addiction and death and how we hoped that by speaking openly about him and through our book and blog we could help in some small way. His response was something I will never forget. He said “Don’t underestimate advocacy because it is the surest way to change things. Science and medicine take a long time and have limited effectiveness.”
His comment came to mind in the recent weeks as I watched millions of people around the world protesting against racial prejudice that lay at the heart of police brutality to People of Color (POC). They are advocates of racial equality as a basic human right. I thought: how I wish I could be helpful in a practical way to a problem I have watched change very little over the decades of my life. I felt anger and also frustration, wondering if all the sacrifice and effort would actually bring about real, lasting change.
It is the same feeling I have when I see a young person on the streets, homeless and struggling, enslaved to a substance that is stealing their life. Or anyone living with addiction of any sort. And if I feel discouraged and hopeless, how must they feel? What will help bring real, substantive change and hope in all these circumstances?
An advocate is one who works by speaking, acting, or writing on behalf of a person or group in order to promote, protect, and defend their welfare and to seek justice for their rights. To speak out for those who have no voice. But advocacy is not cheerleading. A cheerleader is someone who supports their team alone since they are in competition against another team. They are indiscriminate about what their team does or doesn’t do. They don’t necessarily look at the big picture or causes and effects. Their role is to simply cheer on their team or player with slogans that may or may not be true.
But serious problems that affect the wellbeing of individuals, communities, and entire societies, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, substance abuse, and racial prejudice, are not helped by cheerleading. People in danger and suffering need advocates who have compassion, who are truth-tellers, and who will vigorously and untiringly work for a solution.
As parents of a son with addiction, we were sometimes cheerleaders when we needed to be advocates. Cheering him on and telling him he could do it without any medical help was not being realistic or being the advocate he needed. It is difficult to be an effective advocate for those we love. But we must try and we must use whatever resources we have: our voice for those who are not being heard, our writing to bring clarity to public thinking, our physical presence to stand with others, and our time, energy, and finances to step in where we can or offer help to find those resources.
There are as many ways to be an advocate as there are needs in this world. I know people and have friends involved in Black Lives Matter, in refugee struggles, in stopping sexual exploitation and abuse, homelessness and poverty – the list is endless. I am asking myself and you:
How can each one of us be an advocate for the people and needs we are aware of and that we have a passion for?