Out of this darkness, let the unmeasured sword
Rising from sleep to execute or crown
Rest on our shoulders, as we then can rest
On the outdistancing, all-capable flood
Whose brim touches the morning. Down
The long shadows where undriven the dawn
Hunts light into nobility, arouse us noble.
—Philip Larkin, “Come Then to Prayers”
When we look back on the late twenty-teens, I suspect we’re going to think we were out of our collective minds in the months between Trump’s election and his inaguration. And I say this as someone who is herself affected.
Twitter, in particular, has been hard to cope with for those of us with personalities that do not thrive on exhaustive examinations of all of the terrible possiblilities of 2017 and beyond. (I assume there are people for whom such examinations are meat and drink, in which case, go you. But maybe consider your impact on others?)
I’ve talked about this a little on Twitter. Yes, I am aware of the irony. But that’s where the people being pummelled and terrified by the discourse—the people who might benefit from what I’m trying to say—are. Also, I didn’t feel ready to blog more on it. It felt too big. It still feels too big, but maybe it’s time to write this next piece out anyway.
So: my read is that many of us are trapped between vague hope and terribly detailed despair, and the contrast is eating us up. Not the contrast between the light and the dark, but between the clear and the vague.
Because the despair is so clearly articulated, so widespread, so pervasive (and thus persuasive). The numerous hot takes that add up to guys, I can explain how we’re screwed, but I can’t see how we’re going to get out of it; the trending tweets with handy tools to predict nuclear blast radii; the promises and threats of someone who is still a private citizen, albeit a powerful one—all give us a laundry list of bleak and horrible outcomes. A person can read them until she can’t even blink any more, until her heart breaks, and not get through it all. And it’s not going to stop; too much of it is making someone money, feeding an emotional hunger in its readers, or serving a political purpose.
I can’t argue against it, not directly. Much of it is reasoned, well-sourced, gravely sensible.
But it’s incomplete, like bread without yeast, flesh without life. It’s missing a thing that I know exists but cannot explain in detail, cannot predict the place or extent of, cannot forecast the effect of.
The thing that’s missing has given us prominent figures like Rosa Parks and Edith Stein, but also less well-known ones such as Viola Liuzzo, Marion Pritchard, Ruth Coker Burks, Ingrid Loyau-Kennett. (I picked these people almost at random. I could go on for paragraphs.) More recently, it gave us Bree Newsome up the flagpole and Ieshia Evans in the street, the Water Protectors of Standing Rock and the veterans who came to join them. It gave us Łukasz Urban in Berlin last Monday. Maybe next time it will give us me, or you, or someone in our community, among the hundreds or thousands that I know will appear at the right place and time, even though I cannot explain beforehand how, when, or where that will be.
Fred Rogers, the uncanonized saint of American television, said it best: When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’
It is impossible to tell you who these helpers will be, or where they will arise, because they will be ordinary people, which is to say, weird and unpredictable, indvidual and quirky. Their activism and heroism will be like that too, becomes it stems from their humanity. That’s their, or rather our, strength. (Also—hard words here—not everyone who stands up will be OK afterwards. Some of the people I listed died. Some lost everything. And there were many alongside them who were too afraid to step forward. This too is human.)
I’d just like to ask you, next time you read some article or tweetstorm that sets out, piece by deliberate piece, how any particular future is inevitable, to remember: the more the writer limits their analysis to what is already known, and the more certain they sound, the less of a clue they really have. Because they’re missing a real thing they can’t name, can’t describe, and won’t see coming until it’s already in motion. If then.
(This is, by the way, a seasonally appropriate message in my tradition. If you’d asked Herod the Great of Judea what event would make his reign remembered all over the world for thousands of years; if you’d asked Augustus Caesar why his name would be on children’s lips every year long after Latin itself was dead, they’d give you answers that were detailed and sensible, but also completely wrong. Because off in a backwater barn, out of sight, a baby was born. And even if you don’t believe a word people say about the man he grew up to be, he and the people who came after him diverted the plans of kings and emperors.)