I’ve been smoking a bit more pot than usual, eating a bit more sugar, watching more TV on my computer, alone, and hating myself a bit more than usual. Feeling lost. That hopeless kind of feeling an activist gets after falling a bit out of the movement. My most raucous days were between 1988 and 1998. I helped start Copwatch in Berkeley, did their newsletter for years, fought to save People’s Park, again, fought against various anti-homeless ordinances the City of Berkeley tried to pass, various struggles with UC Berkeley and worked on Slingshot. I was on call!
Then I started combining my paid work with activism. Up until recently, I had it easy because my job was so meaningful: supporting and mentoring young folks in Oakland, creating opportunities that wouldn’t have existed otherwise and empowering young people to see their ability to make change in the world around them.
The powers that be eliminated that job and gave me something lesser to do. I had cut out regular commitments in the movement, put all my energy in one place. With no meaning, in a world that is increasingly bleak, I fell into the tiny world of my needs. I knew it was happening and then I forgot. I said to myself, “what am I doing being like all these folks in the U.S. All this sugar, weed, TV isn’t me, something is wrong,” but I couldn’t make myself care, the beast felt too big. These feelings are deadly to hope. Throw in my triple cocktail of sugar, weed and TV, and you get the, “why bother, or I am going to just look out for myself.” You get activist burnout, or the average US person who cannot possibly bear the burden of the pain of witnessing, and being complicit in perpetuating this shitty world.
For many years the book Stones from the River has spoken to me. It is a story set in pre-Nazi Germany in a small town that sees things changing so subtly that it is hard to notice. More and more changed and people didn’t speak up. The beast they were fighting gained too much strength in the absence of dissent. I have felt it in myself lately, seeing that something really wrong is happening, and its power seems far away, too big. I am not doing anything… I feel guilty… things are getting worse… they take away unions, abortion, fire teachers left and right, nurses, tax cuts for the rich, no welfare or jobs programs for struggling folks… hopeless.
But guilt is not a catalyst to change, it paralyzes. I’ve started trying to resist again.
I hear stories of innocents in peril: polar bears, political prisoners, bees, hungry children… I get taken down when I feel how they affect me, when I insert myself into the picture. I can’t bear this pain, knowing this, being with it. A lot of people still have the heart to want the beauty they can imagine, but do not have the heart to face the destruction our flailing humanity has created that is taking so many others down with it.
It is subtle, definitely a Buddhist thing, but when I can separate how I am impacted from what is happening and hold the one(s) who are in peril, I can stay present. If I flinch and turn away, I know I am back to myself. Letting the suffering touch me; taking strength in what I know others have been able to bear allows me to stay present. Try it for a moment if you are generally one of those folks who stay tuned to numb… “this is too hard to feel, feeling this will be difficult for me.” Make the decision and put forth the effort required to find more comfort with discomfort. When I connect with the pain that is outside of me, just let myself witness it, it is actually harder than the yelling and raging and blaming I spent much of my life doing.
Of course, I still have a place for that…the place that is fired up when so many people take up any means necessary and literally fight against being held down. There is still a place in me that is ready for this, that would give up all the comfort in a second to join a struggle like those we have been witnessing in the world in 2011. But in the US we are so addled, no where near close, so how can I hold on with integrity day by day still knowing that my efforts matter?
When I was 18 I hadn’t seen just how big the beast could be. I grew up white middle class with good liberal parents. I knew things weren’t ok with the world. But I didn’t know just how not ok. I started my fight early but I had my youth and fire and I was ready for the streets, ready to face off with cops, not scared to connect with humans that were down and out, and not jaded.
Many white folks are raised to accept the collective myth that says “if you apply yourself, you will get what you want, things will work out,” believing that there is in fact an answer, or the right thing to do. The more I have faced this part of me, the more I see that kind of thinking has contributed to my current feelings of hopeless. I am not naïve enough to believe the fantasy next to any real analysis of the inherent injustice of jail, cops, courts… but it is subtly with me, unchecked, deluding me into not being the kind of ally folks of color need. I am pressing myself to face up to the truth again, staying in the struggle for the long run means knowing that we will lose again and again and still choosing to align with what is right.
Being hopeless is in fact indulgence. I personally could get away with my triple cocktail for a while longer. My life is ok, I have a job and a home. But my soul is limp. My privilege means I don’t have to struggle right now; I don’t have to fight for a better world; I can get by. But my passion peeking up through the muck says I have felt this overwhelm before.
I have learned that sitting in hopelessness for a while isn’t the worst thing in the world, but I cannot stay there. I am starting over. Even if we may lose, I am going to align myself with a just world where humans are valued, treated with respect, can earn a decent living and have a descent life and are not at the mercy of thugs with guns and money. A world where beings of all feathers, fur and scale matter too, just matter, not because of what they do for us but because they are.
I am writing this as I pull myself out of a hole I have been in, hoping maybe you will come out too because in the end every single one of us matters. There are some no brainers to getting enough hope to get back into the game, like knowing I do not have to do everything, have my hand in every part of the solution. If I trust the team, then I know there are people whose passions take them into the street, into the courtroom, to the computer and pen, those that read all the news and know what is going on in the world, those that are well connected, help others connect, those that can teach or raise money, those that can fuck shit up, or help us boost our spirits or take care of our bodies…. Going to a spirited demo with others who have definitely not given up. Noticing the difference you make in small things you do every day, cheering up a friend, or a stranger for that matter. We don’t know about the ripples of our actions, but we do know when someone else makes a difference for us. Check out the Brower Youth Awards, young members of the team spurring great things, starting by themselves and building momentum. The joy is in the little things of struggle along the way, not in the need to win. Each day, as we offer kindness and treat each other with respect, make sacrifices while taking care of ourselves, we matter.
I am inspired by alternative ways of living and loving practiced by some of the beautiful people I live with and described in Slingshot. I wonder if the people I see as having sold out just got to this place of hopelessness and couldn’t pick themselves back up. Did they feed the beast of denial with TV and their drug of choice or money? I walked up to the edge. Thank fuck I am not alone, that I have people in my life that are still in the struggle. Without them, surrounded by others that are numb, there is no telling what would have happened. That is how we lose people. Right now we cannot afford to lose people. That is part of why each of us matters so much.
Slingshot is sometimes criticized for being too concerned with lifestyle, and I can understand the critique. There is so much to be analyzed and fought for and over, but ultimately, we are humans doing these things and the people who do not recognize their humanness often burn the fuck out. I am in the 40-year-old-plus activist category, ready for the revolution and trying to contribute on a daily basis, still respecting myself and my body that cannot do what it used to.
I don’t have the same amount of energy I had when I was 20; oh I wish I did. But would I just run myself in to the ground again without the awareness I have found? Is the approach I took then, with no room to say no, what eventually made me leave Copwatch and take my politics in to the classroom, combining work and activism into one? My current reality allows me to bring in a gentleness that didn’t used to exist. Fighting against the beast is exhausting. And what I look for is in fact what I find – which is one of the best ways for me to get myself back to action…looking for the world I want to live in. I have to make a conscience choice, with resolve to face the tasks ahead, to know when to take a break, to take breaks in a balanced way – kind but not indulgent.
Going this low has allowed me to have compassion for people who were never as active as I was. It takes a lot of courage to say, “I am going to keep fighting for what I believe in when all the odds seem stacked against me.” It would take a lot to jump into the struggle for the first time. So we can either judge our neighbor, or give them a reason to join the team.