(This story was originally published on medium.com. Republished with permission).
I’m in the passenger seat of our gray Honda Civic, looking out as my wife Bianca drives us north into upstate New York. We’re on the way to a quiet birthday getaway, our 4-year-old daughter Amí happy at home with her grandparents. We’re on the highway, and the colors out my window fly by in a flurry of beiges and browns, February colors. It’s 2021, the second winter of the pandemic, and a month earlier, Bianca had her second miscarriage. It is the second time we took sonogram pictures of our baby home, the second time we tried not to get our hopes up, the second time the baby we were going to have died at eight weeks. The second baby with a name and home and a big sister waiting.
I’ve spent the past month going through a whole range of emotions, but this one in the car is anger — a pulsing, swelling rage — and it’s the most surprising emotion of them all. There’s no one to be angry at, of course. Bianca has gone through her own grief journey, and at this moment, she is calm, but I want nothing more for my birthday than to rent a hotel room and smash the shit out of everything in it with a baseball bat. I’m angry that this baby was taken away, that they wouldn’t get to live the life we had planned for them, and above all, that there is nothing I can do about it. The despair feels like falling down a never-ending elevator shaft.
I’m telling her how I feel, speaking loudly, body tensed. It’s not the first time. When I’m done, she pauses, then says: “Ok. It’s time to move on. It’s ok to be sad, it’s ok to be angry. But this happens to many people, this and much worse. You’re special, but not that special. Eventually you have to accept this and adjust.”
We sit in silence for a while as she continues to drive, and we listen to the sound of the engine, the patter of thick sleet on the windshield, the occasional click click click of the turn signal as she changes lanes. “Ok,” I hear myself say. I turn the music on, and it is the beginning of my letting go, the beginning of my choosing.
The World is Ending
I am part of a generation that feels, constantly, and even in the most mundane moments, that the world is ending.
Almost every article I read these days begins with the same preamble listing all of the overlapping crises, topped off by the climate crisis, which will quite possibly lead to the extinction of our species. We have been told so many times that we have an extremely brief window to turn things around, and even then, it is already too late in many ways. I feel swallowed by despair, and I know I’m not alone.
But while there are some things about this moment that feel unique, I remind myself that the experience of the world ending is not new. Whether due to a prophecy or a very real looming threat, many of our ancestors also likely felt that the world was ending. And in many cases their worlds did end. The devastation on Easter Island, the fall of Carthage, the arrival of Columbus, the centuries of chattel slavery, the destruction of Hiroshima, the Cold War, even the Cuban missile crisis — these all must have felt like the end of the world. Facing loss, despair, uncertainty, and death is as much a part of the human experience as anything else.
It’s true that this notion of historic solidarity might not be encouraging. But perhaps it is useful in another way, can point us toward some wisdom we have yet to unlock. Maybe it can shed some light on a question it would serve us well to answer: what do people do when their worlds are ending?
During the Holocaust, which my own family narrowly survived, Jews were often herded into ghettos across Europe to be starved, brutalized, murdered, and ultimately transferred to concentration camps where they were either gassed or worked to death. In the Warsaw Ghetto, there was a famed underground youth-led Jewish resistance that rose up and resisted the Germans for 27 days, against all odds. On their final day, in a holdout encircled by German soldiers, some of the last remaining fighters jumped out of windows to their deaths. In my mind I can see one of these young women jumping — the image is so clear to me that I wonder if I’ve seen it in a movie, or whether it has been somehow buried deep in my DNA. I imagine her, just before jumping, looking out the window at the end of the world. What thoughts are going through her head, what emotions are running through her body, as she prepares to jump?
Letters that the ghetto fighters wrote to one another document that the fighters didn’t hold any illusions about their position. They knew they would not win. In his final letter, Mordechai Anielewicz, the 24-year-old commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, writes: “It is impossible to describe the conditions under which the Jews of the ghetto are now living. Only a few will be able to hold out. The remainder will die sooner or later. Their fate is decided.”
The fighters were mostly starving teenagers with limited weapons and almost no training, facing an almost-endless line of German soldiers with tanks and machine-guns. They knew that the ghetto would be burned to the ground. And yet, Jews facing the end of their world did unimaginably brave and kind and selfless things. And not just the ones who took up arms, but the many along the way, who simply did what so many people feel called to do when they are confronted with suffering. The ones who carried a letter from one place to another, hid a refugee, fed a person on the brink of starvation, took in a lost child, snuck an extra ration home for a sick elder, gave up their blanket for someone colder.
But why? Why did they take these risks if they knew they would lose? Why bother if the world was going to end anyway?
There is this part of Anielewicz’s letter as well: “The fact that we are remembered beyond the ghetto walls encourages us in our struggle.” Many ghetto fighters hoped that their actions would inspire others to rise up as well, and they did. In fact, they inspired me, decades later and half a world away. Undoubtedly, these teenagers, who only a few years earlier went to school and took scouting trips and played ball in the courtyard, had become real strategists. They thought about how to organize people, how to help people feel the belonging necessary to build strong groups, how to connect to a bigger purpose than what was in front of them, how to fight. They understood, it seems, that purpose, strategy, and action could overcome despair.
And yet, there seems to be more here than strategy — something about self-worth, purpose, meaning. Viktor Frankl, a psychotherapist, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, draws on his own experience in a concentration camp. Frankl writes: “There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life.”
Those most likely to survive the camps, Frankl tells us, were those who had a reason to keep fighting to live — a loved one, God, socialism, a vision of a future world they were fighting for. They saw a reason to keep going, so they took agency, even if only in tiny ways — like searching hard for that extra calorie to make it through one more day. Frankl writes: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Taking Agency as the World Ends
Despair is a reasonable reaction to the world we live in. I feel it every day: as I watch my five-year-old daughter fall in love with parts of this world that will disappear in her lifetime; when she gives her pocket-change to an old man on the street who is cold and hungry in a world that will almost certainly become colder and hungrier before it becomes anything else; as I read the never-ending onslaught of news articles on everything from rising white nationalism to melting glaciers. It takes enormous effort to break through it, and even then it comes back. Despair is the kind of thing that comes in waves, creeps under your skin, finds its way into your belly when you’re not paying attention.
But I do break through it from time to time. Often it’s after having really engaged with the heartbreak of it all. Sometimes it’s when I feel glimmers of hope from small victories we’ve won along the way. But most often it happens when I am pushed or pulled by others who have decided to keep fighting — young people dropping out of college to fight for the Green New Deal, Indigenous elders blockading pipelines in the freezing cold, Black people organizing their communities against police repression, and more. They see the writing on the wall as well as I do, know the science just the same — know it in numbers, but in the losses of their communities too. They know their worlds might end, and yet they choose to take action. As George Lakey, who has spent his whole life fighting, and who I have prodded about hope before, reminds me one day on the phone, in one of my own moments of despair: “I can let the newspapers tell me how my life will go, or I can decide for myself.”
In the moments of wisdom encouraged by these heroes, I remember that despair is my vanity talking. It is an indulgence in the illusion that what is here and now is inevitable, that the future is written, that we can see how it will unfold. Despair is not about reality, or the world, or even ultimately the people we care about. It is about us. It is the act of allowing our very real sadness and fear to limit our sense of what is possible, about finding safety and comfort in that darkness, about avoiding heartbreak. Rebecca Solnit writes in Hope in the Dark: “People have always been good at imagining the end of the world, which is much easier to picture than the strange sidelong paths of change in a world without end.” Despair, I think she is saying, is the easy way out.
Despair is also, quite simply, bad politics. By surrendering the fight outwards, despair refocuses us inward. It encourages what I’ve called the politics of powerlessness, marked by navel-gazing, endless process, posturing, and the internal power struggles and call-outs that weaken our organizations and movements. When we don’t believe we can win, we reach instead for the comfort of being surrounded by people who think and talk and look like us, the thrill of being part of the in-group, the small pleasures of being right and pure. In despair there is no need for good strategy, no need for healthy group culture. These are things we only need if we intend to take a real shot at winning. Despair is a self-fulfilling prophecy; it blocks us from taking agency, which makes it all the more likely that our worse fears will come to pass.
As we look out on the political landscape before us, we have every right to assess it as bleak. But nothing about it is inevitable, and we shouldn’t expect our tiny human brains to know how everything will unfold. There are undoubtedly major social upheavals before us. The deep crises we are in the midst of will bring not only pain and suffering but also incredible opportunities for change. People will find themselves moved, outraged, seeking, and out in the streets again in great numbers, many times in the coming decades.
Rather than pretend we know how it all ends, we should do the things we know have worked before: nurture and join powerful social movements, and build institutions that provide masses of people with a vehicle for belonging, meaning, and long-term struggle. This requires good strategy, healthy groups able to wield it, and a movement with a culture open and creative and compelling enough to win over the enormous numbers of people necessary for real transformation. And it requires humility — about what’s possible, about ourselves, about each other. “Wherever human beings are, we at least have a chance,” James Baldwin reminds us, “because we’re not only disasters; we’re also miracles.”
But beyond strategy, there is also just the simple, humble, profound task of being authentically alive on this planet in a time of collapse. Here, too, there is action, because there is more life in the taking of agency than in watching it flutter past us. Taking agency makes us smile and laugh and cry. It gives us the chance to express love and rage. It pumps our blood and fires our synapses. It creates new possibilities, compels action in others, and creates connection, which is what movements are made of. It gives us the opportunity to practice incredible traits like heroism, generosity, and care, lets us experience the joy, love, and gratitude that go hand-in-hand with those traits.
As Arundhati Roy writes: “There is beauty yet in this brutal, damaged world of ours. Hidden, fierce, immense. Beauty that is uniquely ours and beauty that we have received with grace from others, enhanced, re-invented and made our own. We have to seek it out, nurture it, love it.” Yes, there is beauty to uncover still. It won’t disappear the despair, or grief, or heartbreak; but it can, perhaps, prevent us from sinking into them.
So what do we do when the world is ending? The same things that so many of the giants on whose shoulders we stand did when their worlds were ending. We choose to face our despair — to walk towards it and through it —choose to take action, choose to build movements. We do it because we don’t know how it ends, because there are possibilities out there that we simply can’t see from here. We do it because every person organized and campaign won and fraction of a degree of global warming prevented will save lives. Because movements that believe are far more powerful than movements that don’t. And, yes, we fight because fighting is one of the ways we get to nurture our courage and generosity and hope and all those other fundamentally human traits that we treasure most — because our lives will be infinitely richer in that struggle than outside of it. We do it because it is how we get to truly live.
Deciding for Myself / Hope
It’s January 28th 2017, and Trump has recently issued what’s being called the Muslim Ban. Bianca and I are sitting on the living room floor of our cozy apartment in Bed Stuy, playing with Amí, only a few months old.
We’re quiet, sad, numb, despairing. It’s been like this since he won the election. And then, as texts came in one by one from friends rushing to protests at various airports around the country, there is a small opening inside each of us — first a little bit of skepticism, then curiosity, then awe, then excitement. We decide together that one of us should go, on behalf of our little tribe, and that it should be me this time. We don’t think much about what it will yield — we know good strategy takes more than electric moments in the streets, that building movements is a long and trying project, that the other side is powerful — but we also know in our guts it is better to go than not to. We know that we don’t know what might unfold from this.
It’s night, and the cab driver has dropped me off on the other side of the parking lot at JFK airport, where there is less traffic. It’s cold out, but I’m hot from running across the long, sprawling parking lot. As I run, I wonder if there’s any use to all this. What really is the strategy here? Will it stop the ban? Will my contribution have any significance? I don’t have any answers, but I keep running.
As I make my way, blood and adrenaline pump through my veins, and I smile at the corners of my eyes and mouth with awe at the things a body can do, this rapid transformation from hunched over on my living room floor to running with a straight back and strong legs. I find my friends, and our hugs send a rush of endorphins through me. I hear the crowd chant something about home, and I feel both heartbreak at this heartbreaking world, and anger at its breakers. The cops come in large numbers and I feel a rush of fear. I take a step back, and then I bump into strangers at my back, determined and defiant, and now I feel both the old fear and a new courage mingling together.
I join some people I’ve never met in pulling down the metal barricades so that the pulsing sea of people, our people, can expand into the street in front of the airport, and I feel connection with these strangers who I won’t even recognize if I ever see again. I chat with some folks about strategy, about where this surge of action came from, and where it might go from here, and my brain starts to churn and click in ways that will shape me in the coming days and weeks and months. And as my heart slows down and the breath returns to my chest in big cool gulps, I feel strong. I am not a bystander, not a victim, but an agent, full of purpose.
There is a bit of quiet — perhaps we have all settled into a brief moment of collective wondering about how this will end. In that split-second of calm, I feel a drop of uncertainty in my belly, an aching and longing that’s hard to explain, some unexpected sadness — and even these more tender feelings are a welcome sign that I am alive. There is no place I’d rather be.
And then, in that briefly quiet sea of people, I notice another feeling moving through me — cautious and fragile but still there — just a tingling in my fingertips, really. I think it might be hope.
Who knows, the tingling seems to say, maybe we’ll win.
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