Where Are The Grown Ups?

I love the Olympics. I mean…. I love the Olympics.

It’s a biannual obsession in my life. My grandfather used to routinely send me random paraphernalia—hats, gloves, ink pens, flashlights, t-shirts—all inscribed with Olympic rings and Team USA emblems. My sister and I would watch the Olympics as kids, attempting to be ice skaters or gymnasts or swimmers or basketball players or skiers right there in our living room. In college, my friends and I hosted Olympic watching parties, complete with an Olympic theme song written by my friend Elliott (who also one year sent me a series of Olympic themed valentines). During the last Winter Olympics, my roommates and I were snowed in for four days, which meant nonstop coverage and a newfound obsession for ice dancing.

I cried during Michael Phelps last run at the games. I jumped and cheered when the aptly named “Fierce Five” took home the gold in gymnastics. My family had action figures of the 1992 men’s basketball “Dream Team.” To this day, I stand by the fact that Cool Runnings is one of the most inspirational movies of all time.

Yes, it’s true… I love the Olympics, and everything they represent.

I think that’s one of the reasons that I’ve been so riveted by the news this week, as the story of what happened to so many young girls and women under the banner of U.S. Gymnastics continues come to light. If you haven’t been following it, just know this: It’s horrific. Even as I type this, women are standing bravely in a courtroom to face a man named Larry Nassar, who for years used and abused hundreds (yes, that’s right, hundreds) of young girls and women as a so-called doctor for the U.S. Gymnastics team. As a part of his sentencing, woman after woman is coming forward to tell him just how much of an impact his dark and perverse actions have had on their lives. Women who were once just little girls, girls who were dedicating their lives to the sport of gymnastics, girls who dreamed of one day going to the Olympics, girls who trusted the grown ups who promised to help them get there, girls who were subjected to abuse at the hands of a man who was supposed to help them get better, girls whose dreams were stolen and perverted.

And the whole thing makes me sick.

When I was a kid, my parents always taught me to look for the grown ups. When you’re on the playground and someone is bothering you, you look for the grown up to help you. When you’re somewhere new and you get lost, you look for the grown up to help you. When you feel unsafe, you look for the grown up to help you. When you’re hurt, you look for the grown up to help you.

You look for the grown up to help you feel safe.                                          

I’ve been lucky in my life to be surrounded by a series of grown ups who are just that: safe. Ballet teachers, school teachers, Sunday School volunteers, friends of my parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, my parents themselves—all of those people were safe to me. They were the kind of grown ups I could look to for the assurance that I was safe and secure in this world.

And that’s what has been so upsetting to me about so many stories unfolding in our world today, but this one in particular: When those girls looked for the grown ups, they didn’t find help. They didn’t find safety. They didn’t find security. The grown ups in their stories were the perpetrators, the enablers, the offenders, the silencers. To me, that’s devastating. I can’t imagine what it feels like as a child, a teenager, or even a young adult to grow up in a world where the adults around you don’t always feel safe. I can’t even wrap my mind around how you could move through this life with any sense of security and safety when the grown ups in your life have betrayed, abused, and silenced you. What a vulnerable place this world must feel like to you.

Like I said, I am lucky enough to be writing this from the perspective of someone who hasn’t had such an experience. But I do have so many friends and loved ones who have. I know many incredible people who were once little boys and girls who grew up in a world where they felt unprotected, unsafe, unheard, and unseen by the grown ups that surrounded them. One incredible woman I know who lived through such an experience once said to me: “When I think back on that time of my life, I wonder: Where were the grown ups? Where were the adults? So many saw what was happening, but no one said a word. I think if just one grown up had said something to me about what was happening, I would’ve found my voice to say it, too.”

I happened to catch an interview with Reese Witherspoon recently. Full disclosure: I also love her. She’s a born and raised Tennessee girl (much like myself), the actress I want to play me should my life ever be turned into a movie (#longshot), and someone I imagine would instantly  be my best friend if we ever met. (Call me, Reese!) She’s also someone who is passionately using her position in the world to pave the way for women to have better opportunities. She champions women, and, as a female entrepreneur, it’s both inspiring and educational to watch the way she fights for and supports the women in her specific industry.

In this particular interview, she was being asked about the Time’s Up campaign, a movement she’s helping spearhead to provide resources for people in all industries who have been silenced, marginalized, or victimized. And as she responded to the question, she broke down in tears, saying this:

“I think we all think that there’s a better world for these girls. We want more for all our girls and our sons. It’s about that for us.”

Now, I’m not a parent. I don’t have any children of my own. But I do have two amazing nephews. I’m the pseudo-aunt to the little girls and boys who belong to many of my friends. I’m a dance teacher to a room full of 2nd and 3rd graders for three hours every single week. I’m a mentor to a small group of 10th grade girls. And when I look at any of these faces, I think the same thing: I want a better world for them.

It hit me this week as I was thinking about all this that, in their stories, I’m the grown up.

Though I can barely balance my budget, hate to cook, oversleep often, don’t own a house, and probably couldn’t even keep a plant alive for very long, believe it or not, I’m the grown up now. And that means that if I want a better world for the girls and boys in my life, I have a part to play in making that happen.

I want to be the kind of grown up who makes the people in my life feel the same way I did as a child. That no place is unsafe with me. That nothing they tell me will be met with silence or shame. That someone will champion and fight for them. That I see them, and hear them, and believe them. That I believe in them. That I’m for them.

I want more for those girls. I want a different world for the sons and daughters of the people that I love.

As a Christian, for me, that starts with belief that Jesus is the hope of this world. He’s the solution to the darkness that perverts and permeates our culture. He’s the answer.

But even if you don’t believe that in the same way that I do, I think you can get with me on this one. I think you can agree that the world needs more grown ups to actually be grown ups. I think you and I can agree that it’s up to us to be the kind of grown ups who make the world feel safe, secure, and supportive for the people who are coming behind us.

And maybe, just maybe, when they turn on the news in twenty years, they won’t see the stories we’ve been seeing lately.

Maybe, just maybe, the Olympics for them will just be the Olympics.

Maybe, just maybe, they’ll never know a grown up who makes them feel anything other than safe, secure, and loved.  

Sara Shelton