One of my favorite movies, The Year of Living Dangerously, is set in Indonesia in 1965. Billy Kwan looks at the suffering around him and asks, What then must we do? He says to the journalist, Guy Hamilton: “Tolstoy asked the same question. He wrote a book with that title. He got so upset about the poverty in Moscow that he went one night into the poorest section and gave away all his money. You could do that now. Five American dollars would be a fortune to one of these people.” Guy responds that it wouldn’t do any good; it would just be a drop in the bucket. Billy says, “That’s the same conclusion Tolstoy came to; I disagree. I support the view that you just don’t think about the major issues. You do whatever you can about the misery in front of you. Add your light to the sum of lights.”
Adding your light to the sum of lights is a central theme of an uplifting and powerful book I recently rediscovered. Last weekend as I was reeling from the week’s news and feeling very bleak, I suddenly remembered a book that had been recommended to me years ago by a therapist I was seeing. It’s titled The Impossible Will Take A Little While: a citizen’s guide to hope in a time of fear. If I remember correctly it sat on my stack of “to read” books for a long time. As soon as I thought of it I worried that it had been shed during a move. And if I still owned this book, could I find it? As it turned out, Yes.
My edition was published 13 years ago before the subtitle was changed to “perseverance and hope in troubled times.” Plunging into it, I have been struck by how timely the essays and stories are. Over 60 inspiring authors contributed articles that could have been written yesterday in terms of what they say about our country, our fears, and the sometimes fragile state of hope.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
“The problem is not that we have so little power. The problem is that we don’t use the power we have.”
These are the words of Danusha Veronica Goska who at one time was stricken with a debilitating illness called perilymph fistula which unpredictably rendered her paralyzed on random days. You can imagine her reaction to hearing people say about the political situation: “I feel paralyzed.” She thinks that one reason we deny our power is that “virtue” is perceived as something exclusive. She says, “I’m protesting the fallacy that to be virtuous, one must be on T.V., one must be off to a meeting on how to be a better person or one must have just come from a meeting on how to be a better person but one can pass up every opportunity to actually be a better person. When we study the biographies of our heroes, we learn that they spent years in preparation doing tiny, decent things before one historical moment propelled them to center stage.”
Tremendously consequential work often rests on a foundation of humbling and frustrating work.
This is the conclusion of Paul Rogat Loeb who is also the editor of the book. He echoes Goska’s words about the tiny, decent things that precede greatness. He points out that before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the “colored section” to a white passenger after the seats for whites were filled and was subsequently arrested, she spent twelve years as secretary of her local NAACP chapter and had attended a ten-day training session at Tennessee’s labor and civil rights organizing school where she met an older generation of civil rights activists who provided invaluable support.
The optimism of uncertainty is a powerful force.
Another way of saying this is that anything can happen at any moment. When I worked in a real estate office I used to say this to one of the realtors who wasn’t very happy with his life. He usually responded with, “WTF does that mean?” It means that just when things may appear most hopeless, life can surprise us with something good. The political picture may look very bleak and suddenly we’ll be encouraged by the surprise actions of those who resist, and inspire us to do the same. They remind us that no matter how much power some may have, the powerful can’t prevent us from appreciating the beauty in life, loving who and what we love, and thinking independently. Howard Zinn’s essay does an excellent job of illustrating this with historic events that took a positive shape no one could have predicted in advance. He says, “Don’t look for a moment of total triumph. See engagement as an ongoing struggle, with victories and defeats, but in the long run slow progress.”
Channel rage constructively.
Cornel West talks about establishing moral channels through which rage can flow. He says, “This rage needs some targeting and direction. It has to reflect a broad moral vision.” He adds that we need “the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people . . . in many instances we will be stepping out of nothing, hoping to land on something.” It’s unrealistic to think there won’t be rage in response to injustice. The challenge lies in using it constructively.
Despair is a lie we tell ourselves.
Tony Kushner says, “I do not believe the wicked always win. I believe our despair is a lie we are telling ourselves. In many other periods of history, people, ordinary citizens, routinely set aside hours, days, time in their lives for doing the work of politics, some of which is glam and revolutionary and some of which is dull and electoral and tedious and not especially pure — and the world changed because of the work they did.” My friend, Janet, has decided to spend at least a half hour a day from now on, as part of her daily routine, on taking political action whether that means contacting representatives, making a flyer, posting information on social media, etc. This discipline helps to keep her from despair.
There is no shame in being a creative extremist.
This comes from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. He uses Jesus Christ and Abraham Lincoln as examples of creative extremists among others and says, “So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice–or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”
I’m still reading this wonderful book; it’s comforting and inspiring to me. Regarding the maintenance of hope in troubled times, I’ll end with what many have said before: Take advantage of community. Don’t skimp on self-care. And take time-outs from all things political whenever needed. All of these are essential survival techniques when you’re in it for the long haul.