How to keep going

Emily Johnston
Dec 2, 2018 · 5 min read
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At the MIT Media Lab’s Disobedience Award ceremony on Friday, someone asked me how I keep going—where I find hope.

As a climate organizer, it’s a question I get all the time, but it struck me a little differently this time. What she said was something to the effect of “On a good day, I can believe that we can win against misogyny and racism over time. But climate change, on such a short timeline? Shit. How do you keep going?

I was glad she asked, because we’d been asked the same on our panel, and I’d failed to say what I’d wanted to, which is that I see our job not as having hope, but of making space for hope. If we don’t act boldly in the next couple of years, we lose most of our leverage to save huge swaths of the astonishing life on this planet, and we fail both existing and future lives almost incomprehensibly.

Globally, acting so boldly as to not fail is unlikely. But it doesn’t matter how unlikely a thing is; it only matters if it’s possible, and worth working for. Scientists are remarkably unified in believing it is possible, and nothing has ever been more worth working for.

So our job is not to feel hope—that’s optional. Our job is to be hope, and to make space for the chance of a different future.

The woman who asked me the question is young, articulate, savvy. She thinks about political change a lot. So perhaps that’s why something finally struck me this morning: when people ask this question, they’re not actually questioning whether there is hope, theoretically; they’re questioning their own ability to rise to this moment in time. They’re surveying the near future and finding themselves wanting—because they’re using the wrong lens.

I should have understood that before, but I’d been distracted by the way “how do you keep going?” is nearly always paired with “how do you stay hopeful?”

So let me state clearly again: only in the Rebecca Solnit sense (where it’s “an axe you break down doors with in an emergency” and located “in the spaciousness of uncertainty [where there] is room to act”) do I have hope. Feeling hope for any particular outcome—even avoiding the extinction of human beings—is not what fuels me. What fuels me is the knowledge that we can still make a difference, and therefore we must: we can preserve lives, and life, in the most basic and beautiful sense possible.

It’s an astonishing and surreal luxury to know that some lives, even some species, may continue because of the work that we do. But being attached to any particular hope now is a fool’s game; the one thing we know for sure is that in coming decades, nearly everything will change. If I’m fighting only for my own family, or only for human lives, or only for orcas, or only for monarch butterflies, then when I’m forced to see that one or all of those are exceedingly unlikely to survive past a few more centuries—and they are—then all heart will go out of my efforts—and other families, or humpback whales, or parrots, or wolves, will thereby lose a little bit of their hope too. And that’s senseless, because I would dedicate my life to their survival too, if I understood it to be possible. It’s a privilege and a profound responsibility, to be born into a moment when nurturing life on Earth into the future is possible, and into a nation that has, in truth, nowhere to go but up in living up to its responsibilities.

In other words, we cannot know who and what will survive, but it’s exceedingly likely that some will, if we fight hard enough, and those are the ones that matter. It’s that “spaciousness of uncertainty”, the space that we ourselves must make, selflessly, for other lives.

So let me ask and try to answer the question more clearly: how do we rise to this moment in time, especially if we don’t imagine ourselves powerful in the right ways?

I think we have to reconsider what we mean by power, and see that taking responsibility and taking care — for/of ourselves, the work, and others — is one of its deepest manifestations.

The Disobedience Award gathering was one of the most inspiring events I’ve been to, because of the way in which the winners and finalists held/hold power. To a person — to a woman, because all were—they held other people up, and many commented on their own privilege, in one case even while describing her abuse at the hands of state forces. It seemed that all felt what one expressed, which is that they acted simply because they couldn’t look themselves in the mirror if they didn’t. Several explicitly rejected the idea of themselves as heroes. What the event was really honoring, in many ways, was resilience. They weren’t knights in shining armor, or moved by a narrative urge to sacrifice, or touched with the light of pure faith; they were people who did the right thing under difficult circumstances, and kept doing it, and learned along the way. In nearly all cases, they did so by joining together with others. They didn’t have to make change by themselves; they simply helped to catalyze it, making space for others to join them, both because they needed help, and because they wanted to help.

I suspect they didn’t feel powerful, either, in other words—or at least, they often didn’t. Very seldom did, if I’m speaking for myself. And I think it’s exceedingly likely that when Tarana Burke started #MeToo ten years ago, it wasn’t because she was feeling hopeful that she could eradicate sexual violence — no more than I feel hopeful that we can stop climate change.

No single drop of water can renew parched soil. We will fail utterly if we do not share our strength. There is exactly no time to waste: whatever our gifts are, we must give them now—without specific hope, without pride, without waiting for the thing that feels just right, or the people who feel like exactly the ones we’d choose to do this work with. We must fail, and then get up and try again. We must work with what we have, every day that we can, as wisely as we can, together.

It’s that simple. That’s how we keep going. And some days, at least, there is more joy in this work than I could possibly have imagined.

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