Focus and Redirection — Lessons, and Hope, for 2018

Vanessa Warheit
Jan 17, 2018 · 5 min read

The Sunday after Donald Trump won the US Presidential election, I found myself at the Berkeley UU Fellowship Hall. Like many of us that day, I was looking for a place to help me process what had just happened. Marsh Agobert spoke to us about the election, and about our emotional responses to it — and about what the martial arts can teach us about the nature of resistance.

On that Sunday back in 2016, Marsh asked us to pair up, to assign a Person A and a Person B, and to hold out our palms toward each other. “Now touch your palms together, and both of you PUSH. Hard.” A roomful of confused and desperate people obligingly put our hands together and pushed. It was a little awkward — and exhausting. “Now,” he said, “Stop. Then, Person A, you push — but Person B, don’t push back — just allow that energy to move your hand somewhere else.”

It was a simple lesson, but extremely effective. As a Person B, I found my hand going all over the place, with a surprising amount of force. Directing it somewhere took energy, but a lot less energy than simply pushing back. His message was clear: in politics, as in martial arts, if we use our opponent’s energy to move in a new direction, we conserve our own energy. The job transforms from resisting the energy, to the much easier (and more fun) job of determining where that energy will go.

The other lesson he taught us, also drawing from martial arts, was about focus. “What you focus on, you feed,” he explained. “So don’t focus on your opponent. Focus instead on where you want to go. Just remember to keep your opponent in your peripheral vision at all times.”

These two ideas — focusing on where you want to go, and harnessing the energy of your opponent — have proven invaluable to me over the past year.

Because, let’s be honest, it’s been a hell of a year. Together, the people of this nation have risen up to resist countless attacks to our dignity and our democracy — from judicial and cabinet appointments, to executive decrees, to regulatory rollbacks, to the biggest wealth transfer in American history. It’s easy to feel like we are playing a giant game of whack-a-mole. It can be exhausting. It’s easy to feel demoralized.

But maybe — just maybe — all that negative energy is actually what we needed.

In many ways, as Adrienne Maree Brown says, things aren’t really getting worse, they are just getting unveiled. The Trumpist onslaught has had the effect of breaking down our progressive issue silos, breaking our hearts open to the many different injustices of the status quo. As a white climate activist, I’ve woken up to the structural violence against people of color; woken up to the terror experienced by families facing deportation; woken up to the fear and determination of labor organizers fighting an uphill battle for the safety and financial security of working people.

To be honest, some days all this getting woke can feel overwhelming. But I have also seen my brothers and sisters, in their different and various struggles for justice and dignity, waking up to the horrors of climate change, and the violence being done to our beloved planet. They are connecting the dots to the direct impacts of climate change on their own communities, and understanding how climate solutions can help them as well. I’ve worked side by side with people who make their living in oil refineries, fighting the same fight for clean energy and a living wage. And when that kind of ‘intersectionality’ happens, our movements all grow together and we get stronger.

In other words, there’s a lot more energy in the system now, and it’s breaking down old patterns that were holding us back. Our job now is to harness and keep that energy focused so we can move forward.

After years of feeling hopeless, I’m actually more hopeful now than ever.

As a climate activist, I’ve had to learn about energy, and how it operates in a system. All the fossil fuel energy being dug out of the ground has super-charged our climate, wreaking havoc and pushing our planet’s natural systems into a whole new state of being. It’s not hard to draw an analogy to recent American politics — where hateful bigotry and misogyny and extremism of all kinds, fueled by unprecedented amounts of dark money, have energized a citizenry that was, until very recently, pretty low-energy. It is my profound, active hope that this infusion of hostile energy and dark money will — ironically — continue to super-charge the progressive movement, pushing our democracy and economy into a whole new state of being.

Will things go back to the way they were? No, they won’t. Not for our climate, and not for our democracy. (Although we still have a narrow window for averting the worst effects of climate change, you can’t elect Donald Trump to the Oval Office and hope for anything like ‘normal’ afterwards.) But for our democracy, at least, that might not be a bad thing. We are on the cusp of a Great Turning; and if we keep using this new energy to organize, to focus on the future we want for ourselves and our communities and our children, we may get there faster than we’d ever dreamt was possible.

So let’s set our sights on what’s possible in 2018. We can not only flip Congress (see how here and here and here) — we can populate it with people who actually look like America (like young people, and women, and people of color). We can elect folks to represent the interests of citizens instead of corporations. We can elect candidates who don’t take money from the fossil fuel industry. We can elect representatives who will impeach our Impostor-in-Chief (and who knows, maybe even throw him in jail). Once we do that, we can start dismantling the systems of injustice that have held us back for so long, and we can begin in earnest to build a clean energy, justice-based economy that works for everyone.

It’s been a hell of a year — and we’ve got a lot of work to do. But I believe we are going to win. I believe a better world is still possible. We just need to keep redirecting all that energy, while keeping our opponents firmly in our peripheral vision.

Vanessa Warheit
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