The Substance of Things Hoped For, The Evidence of Things Not Seen

I am 45 years old and my heart still breaks when I read the news nearly every day. The feeing is really an expression of deep frustration. The heartbreak doesn’t come in response to everyday loss. I seem to take that in stride. No, it comes from witnessing injustice and, more significantly, being unable to do anything about it. To take the right action to make change happen.

And so my heart breaks when I see images from Aleppo. I’m stunned by the awesome traumas this generation of Syrians has experienced and how it’s effects will manifest years down the line. (Because there will be a consequence for letting evil continue, there always is.) If even President Obama, the most powerful man in the world, a man who has accomplished so much, cannot find a way to stop it, what hope is there?

And my heart breaks with each new report of another police killing. I like to think that our society believes that killing others is wrong. But when I see black folks dying at the hands of law enforcement officers in situations where white folks wouldn’t, I wonder if we really believe that at all. Maybe what we really believe in is power; the power to keep what we have or to get more. Isn’t that why Trump’s poll numbers are so high? He promises to give power to a certain group of people who feel powerless. Many are attracted to those promises, even if deep down they know that so much of what he says is deeply troubling.

In my darkest moments I chastise myself and think I should just stop believing in something greater than myself. Maybe the fact that I’m upset by the injustice in the world shows my naivete and weakness. Maybe the world just isn’t such a good place after all.

Years ago, I was walking at night in Berkeley not long after the Rodney King verdict. People were rioting in the streets and it wasn’t safe to be out and about. I walked by three or four young African-American men and one reached out and hit me on the head as he walked by. We didn’t know each other. I assume he was angry about the verdict and needed to take it out on someone — I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I didn’t hit him back. I’ve often wondered at my reaction. Was it weakness in the face of a threat?

Or was it something else? I’ve heard someone say that a world that always responds to a punch with another punch is doomed. And I think that is right. I understand that young man’s anger and, though I wish he hadn’t taken it out on me, I can forgive him for that. Force just didn’t, and doesn’t, seem like the right response.

I’m not willing to give up that part of me. I’ve learned this from so many public defenders over the years. You don’t go into the business because you think you will win all, or even most, of your cases. No, it’s a profession where losing comes with the territory. But all the good public defenders I’ve known do it for another reason. We do it because it’s the fight for justice that matters. We do it because it’s the collateral consequences that attach to treating our clients and their families as human beings, as people of value. We do it because standing up for human life in all its forms — the good, the bad, and the hopelessly in between — makes our world a better place, even though it will never make it a perfect place.

This may seem dreamily metaphysical or simply foolish wishful thinking. And maybe it is. But we all have to believe in something. The Bible says that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. I believe in the innate goodness of human beings and sometimes it feels like the evidence is wanting. But then I think of the heroes I know who affirm humanity every day. And often I think of the heroes I don’t know — the folks saving people from the rubble in Aleppo, the peaceful protesters of the Black Lives Matter movement, the people I know who would drop everything to help a friend in need.

Ta-Nehisi Coates says that he struggles not because people will wake up or because the world will at some point be made right. He struggles because the struggle is his, it allows him to say he was not part of the group that pushed the world toward the abyss. He’s right. The struggle is something to be proud of even though it may not be successful. The struggle itself has value.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But the struggle is mine and I can only hope that the collateral consequences going along with it will ripple out and effectuate some amount of positive change. So my heart will continue to break at the injustice I see and at my seeming powerlessness in its face. The heartbreak propels the struggle foward. I hope my heart is still breaking when I’m 90.