A good friend sent me the following essay by Sam Smith from an online magazine called "Progressive Review." The essay is a response to an inquiry from writer David Sirota about how we may deal sanely and effectively with the difficult times in which we live.
FACING THE DEPRESSION OF THE SPIRIT
David Sirota, Open Left - Over the last decade, I went from idealistic college kid, to idealistic Hill staffer, to cynical political campaign operative, to angry/angsty writer/activist, to full-time journalist, and in this last stage, I've hit an existential question that I think many are struggling with in their own lives, regardless of their age: What....am I doing?
Thanks to the economic meltdown, ensuing AIG bonuses, and promotion of economic criminals to top White House jobs, it has never been more clear that the American economy and political system is one that rewards everything we say we don't want to reward.....Why do we just sit here and take it? And if we're not going to take it, what....should we do? Most of us who have a job are totally overworked - we barely have time for our families. Those of us who are out of work are scratching and clawing to survive - they barely have time for anything else. So what should we do?
Sam Smith, 2004 - We must learn to stand outside of history. Quakerism, for example, prescribes personal witness as guided by conscience - regardless of the era in which we live or the circumstances in which we find ourselves. And the witness need not be verbal. The Quakers say "let your life speak," echoing St. Francis of Assisi's' advice that one should preach the gospel at all times and "if necessary, use words."
There are about as many Quakers today in America as there were in the 18th century, around 100,000. Yet near the center of every great moment of American social and political change one finds members of the Society of Friends. Why? In part because they have been willing to fail year after year between those great moments. Because they have been willing in good times and bad -- in the instructions of their early leader George Fox -- "to walk cheerfully over the face of the earth answering that of God in every one "
The existentialists knew how to stand outside of history as well. Existentialism, which has been described as the idea that no one can take your shower for you, is based on the hat trick of passion, integrity and rebellion. An understanding that we create ourselves by what we do and say and that, in the words of one of their philosophers, even a condemned man has a choice of how to approach the gallows.
Those who think history has left us helpless should recall the abolitionist of 1830, the feminist of 1870, the labor organizer of 1890, or the gay or lesbian writer of 1910. They, like us, did not get to choose their time in history but they, like us, did get to choose what they did with it.
Would we have been abolitionists in 1830?
In 1848, 300 people gathered at Seneca Falls, NY, for a seminal moment in the American women's movement. On November 2, 1920, 91 year-old Charlotte Woodward Pierce became the only signer of the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions who had lived long enough to cast a ballot for president.
Would we have attended that conference in 1848? Would we have bothered?
Or consider the Jewish cigar makers in early 20th century New York City each contributing a small sum to hire a man to sit with them as they worked - reading aloud the classic works of Yiddish literature. The leader of the cigar-makers, Samuel Gompers, would later become the first president of the American Federation of Labor. And those like him would become part of a Jewish tradition that profoundly shaped the politics, social conscience, and cultural course of 20th century America. It is certainly impossible to imagine liberalism, the civil rights movement, or theVietnam protests without the Jewish left.
These are the sort of the stories we must find and tell each other during the bad days ahead. But there is a problem. The system that envelopes us becomes normal by its mere mass, its ubiquitous messages, its sheer noise. Our society faces what William Burroughs called a biologic crisis -- "like being dead and not knowing it." Or as Matthew Arnold put it, trapped between two worlds, one dead, the other unable to be born.
The unwitting dead -- universities, newspapers, publishing houses, institutes, councils, foundations, churches, political parties -- reach out from the past to rule us with fetid paradigms from the bloodiest and most ecologically destructive century of human existence. What should be merely portraits on the wall of our memories run our lives still, like parents who retain perpetual hegemony over the souls of their children.
Yet even as we complain about and denounce the entropic culture in which we find ourselves, we are unable bury it. We speak of a new age but make endless accommodations with the old. We are overpowered and afraid.
To accept the full consequences of the degradation of the environment, the explosion of incarceration, the creeping militarization, the dismantling of democracy, the commodification of culture, the contempt for the real, the culture of impunity among the powerful and the zero tolerance towards the weak, requires a courage that seems beyond us. We do not know how to look honestly at the wreckage without an overwhelming sense of surrender; far easier to just keep dancing and hope someone else fixes it all.
We are overpowered and afraid. We find ourselves condoning things simply because not to do so means we would then have to -- at unknown risk -- truly challenge them.
Yet, in a perverse way, our predicament makes life simpler. We have clearly lost what we have lost. We can give up our futile efforts to preserve the illusion and turn our energies instead to the construction of a new time.
It is this willingness to walk away from the seductive power of the present that first divides the mere reformer from the rebel -- the courage to emigrate from one's own ways in order to meet the future not as an entitlement but as a frontier.
How one does this can vary markedly, but one of the bad habits we have acquired from the bullies who now run the place is undue reliance on traditional political, legal and rhetorical tools. Politically active Americans have been taught that even at the risk of losing our planet and our democracy, we must go about it all in a rational manner, never raising our voice, never doing the unlikely or trying the improbable, let alone screaming for help.
We will not overcome the current crisis solely with political logic. We need living rooms like those in which women once discovered they were not alone. The freedom schools of SNCC. The politics of the folk guitar. The plays of Vaclav Havel. Unitarian church basements. The pain of James Baldwin. The laughter of Abbie Hoffman. The strategy of Gandhi and King. Unexpected gatherings and unpredicted coalitions. People coming together because they disagree on every subject save one: the need to preserve the human. Savage satire and gentle poetry. Boisterous revival and silent meditation. Grand assemblies and simple suppers.
Above all, we must understand that in leaving the toxic ways of the present we are healing ourselves, our places, and our planet. We must rebel not as a last act of desperation but as a first act of creation.