“Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting.” – Rebecca Solnit
The past month has not been an easy one for me. I can’t blame it all on the election. A week after the results I received some devastating personal news and that didn’t help, and since that time, I’ve had a hard time recovering. I don’t think it’s the losing that did it. I think it’s the general tenor of things. It’s the angry, frustrated, fearful posts from my passionate friends on social media. It’s more than the fact that Trump is nominating unqualified, sometimes dangerous officials to his cabinet. It’s the principal of all of this. While the President-elect is ignoring democratic tradition, policy, and Constitutional policy, my own state government is considering legislation to limit freedom of speech, destroy public pensions, and cut funding for public education. You see, it’s not the details that are causing me so much turmoil, it’s the impact of all of it. It’s the doomsday predictions, the alarmist, depressing, over-simplified news stories. It’s the talking heads; it’s those who are passionate and those who are apathetic. It’s just so much emotion, from both sides, and the emotion is real and heavy and powerful and it felt like I was carrying it all around, like an anvil, on my back. And the feeling was real, visceral.
I’m a bit of a news junky and have been for years, so I am no stranger to bad news, corrupt politicians, jobs reports, and the like. I couldn’t figure out what was so unusual this time around. Why was it that day after day this weight followed me? I woke up with it. It pressed upon me when I picked up my kids from school, when I sat at the Thanksgiving table. And it boiled over. There were several days of crying. Crying over stupid things, crying for no reason. I felt hopeless and despondent and I also felt like I was being ridiculous. I knew in my mind that our American system of government was built with more checks and balances than I even know about or understand. I know that countries have ups and downs and I know that we, as a human race, have clawed our way through slavery, world wars, the Holocaust, internments, attacks, and more. And yet, I could not get out from under that oppressive weight. And yet, my gut just never got the message.
Then two things happened, within two days of each other, that gave me just a enough wiggle room to shift that weight a bit. First, a friend sent me a text asking if I was ok. As a person who hates to ask for help or appear vulnerable in any way, I found myself unable to keep up the charade any longer and I answered with “no.” And then she listened (or read, rather) my flood of texts about how I was feeling and how I couldn’t get out of this funk. I literally typed while sobbing, as if – to use the cliché – a floodgate had opened. And she didn’t have all the answers. Or any, really, because there are no answers. There are no answers when someone is hurting, but she was there, she listened, she sympathized and I, finally, put what I had been feeling and carrying around for weeks, into words.
The next day we had an unusually warm afternoon with sunshine (a rarity in Michigan in December). I left work and, before picking up the kids, went to a nature trail and just walked. Simply being out in the sunshine helped immensely and I actually remember thinking how I just felt freer all of a sudden. I swear, from that point on, I felt clearer. Still bummed about the state of things, but my willingness to fight was creeping back. Little by little I found that remnants of my former self returned.
I then happened upon a book list online and ended up downloading the book Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit. The book, a small collection of essays, was written right after George W. Bush was elected to a second term. At the time, we were questioning the invasion of Iraq, anti-war protests were taking place, the country was still recovering from 9/11, and there was a great sense of despair and frustration for many. The book’s aim was to inspire and remind us that great moments of human industry, charity, and sacrifice can be found in the darkest of times. It aimed to inspire us to continue our work to make and keep this country great. It used history to remind us that there has been struggle in the past and there have been victories.
The book has recently been re-released with a new introduction from the author as she feels we are now in similar times of despair. There are many lessons from the book that have shaped my current mindset, but two are particularly striking.
One is an example Solnit recounts about Hurricane Katrina. She reminds the reader that after that tragedy, anyone who had a boat rushed to New Orleans to help search for and rescue survivors. She points out, no one said, “Well, we can’t rescue them all, so there’s no point in trying.” Instead the sentiment was, “If I can even help one person, I’ve done something.” And yet, in issues of politics and national strife we look at the enormity of the problem, shrug our shoulders and say, “it’s useless.” But if we just remember to work “one person at a time,” that is making change. Sure, that’s not large, sweeping reform, but it is still forward momentum.
Thus bringing me to a second major take-away. We can never know the long-term effect we may have on this world. Even large, organized movements don’t always see victory in their own lifetime. Women fought for the right to vote for 50 years! We sometimes don’t see the fruits of our labors for years and years and sometimes we don’t see them at all, yet what we are doing still is sending a ripple out into the world. As a teacher I have the privilege of meeting hundreds of young people a year and watching them grow and develop over their four years in high school. And I stay in touch with many of them and I get to see them go on to become wonderful parents, doctors, athletes, writers, students, engineers, social workers, activists, and more. I see them travel and learn and question. I take no credit for these accomplishments, but I do like to remind myself that I was able to play one teeny, tiny role in their development.
So this is life and this is what we can do. Certainly we can and should get involved in large movements about issues we feel passionately about, but we can also begin sending ripples right now. My family was able to sponsor a child in Uganda who is attending a school that a former student of mine built with his own hands and hard work. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the number of children in this world who do not have access to education I can, at least, ensure that ONE child receives an education. And sure, in the scheme of things, that’s a baby ripple, but you really never know where that ripple may lead and how strong it may become over time.
And now that is what I think about before I fall asleep at night.
“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists.” – Rebecca Solnit