We all woke up today to news of the positive tests. Even in those first few moments as we took in this revelation, the kaleidoscope of thoughts and emotions spun with particular vividness and speed.
It seems to have included, at least for most of us, some combination of the following: a flicker of gloating at the karmic elegance, a quick pre-coffee calculation about the implications for the ballot and the election, a flash of concern about what a sudden Pence candidacy could mean, an injection of looking-glass doubt about the veracity of the announcement itself, a vein-collapsing fear about the reactions of his unhinged supporters, a quick game of “What if?” landing on Pelosi, an unavoidable glance at the inhumane underbelly of our darker thoughts (How sick is just the right amount of sick? Would death lead to martyrdom? What should we even hope for? Say? Could we access a small but important reservoir of mercy and compassion?), a Google search about the distance droplets could have travelled across that poisonous debate stage, and, of course, some variation on the now familiar lament, “How have we come to this as a society? How have I come to this as a person, that my thoughts about the health and survival of another person — much less an American president — are so calculated, murky, and inconclusive?”
Let’s put that all aside, just for a moment. Like a dog’s poop bag temporarily left on the side of the road until the return-home portion of a walk, it’ll be there waiting for us to pick it back up when we’re done. Nobody else wants it.
For now, though, a thought exercise: imagine that suddenly — poof — it’s all gone. This atrocity of an Administration. The corruption. The violence. The oppression, suppression, bullying, toxic culture, supremacist dog whistles, Fox News, the social media circus, the destruction of our most precious democratic institutions. The flagrant, desperate cheating.
But not only that: let’s dream bigger.
Let’s imagine, for a moment, that the racism in our individual and collective hearts has been healed and reparations have been made. All of the “-isms” have become simple vocabulary terms, reminding engaged students of a dark and distant past. We’ve come to view each other as unique humans with unique contributions to make to our flourishing society. Climate change has been corrected, the skies are blue, the seasons are restored, the glaciers no longer calving. The soil is nourished, the oceans teeming with life.
COVID is eradicated, of course. You can hug whoever you want, and you do so with deep gratitude because you remember how it felt when you couldn’t. High quality healthcare — deemed, once and for all, a human right — is available for everyone, and employment is at 100%, as is voter turnout (even for local elections!). Communities have come together, families at the border have been reunited, immigration is reimagined and embraced, and we’ve rejoined international treaties and alliances. Our standing in the world is not only restored, it is at an all time high, because we’ve fought our own demons and won, and we are a mature, wise nation among nations. And yes, our economy — a clean, green one that puts the planet above profit and humans above hoarding — is booming.
And let’s keep going.
There are no more hungry children or abused animals. Our global food system is healed, clean water flows freely, every species on the border of extinction has been revived and all orphaned children have been happily adopted. Even Israel and Palestine have found a path to peace. Trafficking is abolished, as is poaching, child labor, strip-mining, and mass incarceration. Restorative justice has been universally implemented, and the disarmament of nuclear weapons ensures security and safety for future generations. The rainforest has been reborn. Amazon and its corporate peers have become beacons of human and planetary stewardship, small businesses are cropping up everywhere in big cities and small towns, and Christmas at the White House no longer looks like it’s straight out of The Handmaid’s Tale. Speaking of which: Roe is upheld, and women can safely care for and make decisions about their own bodies.
And just a bit more: families of all types have the ability to stay home, bond, and nurture each other as they grow without fear for their employment. Maternal health has skyrocketed. Schools have truly become a place where students cultivate the knowledge, skills, and wisdom needed for becoming whole, compassionate, intelligent, informed, creative, effective lifelong learners. The bees have come back. Tourism has given way to travel. We don’t even need the “eco-” prefix anymore, because it just is.
And perhaps most tellingly, people have remembered how to have fun and not just be passively entertained. There’s music, dancing, and laughter in the streets. People greet each other with a smile and a friendly wave. Libraries are bustling centers of curiosity and community.
Joy, beauty, and real connection have been recognized as intrinsic to the human experience, and we’ve organized our lives accordingly.
I know, I know. But just sit with it. Lean into it.
What does it feel like to you? Even reading back my own words, I feel many things: exhilarated, to be sure, but also almost a sense of giddy vertigo. For all of the time I spend thinking about these issues, and even organizing and campaigning on their behalf, the experience of imagining the outcomes that work aspires to feels tellingly — and, I think, very importantly — dizzying, outlandish, and, at the moment, sadly naive.
But it’s not naive. It only feels that way because we’ve been conditioned to assume that “the way the world is” is somehow inevitable. We must remember, though, that there is nothing inevitable about the circumstances in which we find ourselves; it is a consequence of an infinite number of actions and inactions taken in the past, just as the future will be, by definition, the consequence of the actions and inactions we choose today.
When we know — and, moreover, can feel — what we’re aiming for, we’re better equipped to do the hard, consistent work needed to get there.
And let’s be clear: despite the best efforts of millions of activists, organizers, and public servants, the fantasy above was not coming quickly into being even before this monstrous president arrived on the scene. The system strongly favored its own perpetuation, as systems do.
Ordinarily, I tend to protect myself against vividly imagining such happy outcomes because — like a hot air balloon suddenly out of propane — the plummeting return to the current circumstances of our lives, country, and planet is simply too painful.
But think back, for a moment, to the mental images that arose for you as you read through the first few paragraphs of this story. Where were you located within that landscape? Were you some sort of disembodied observer, hovering vaguely in the distance as you noticed those robust glaciers, those teeming oceans, those happy schools and streets, blue skies, and vibrant rainforests? Or were you right there in it, feeling the warmth of a specific hug from a specific person and the exuberance of the dancing?
If you really dig into this question, you might notice that although you were following along and perhaps picturing it all, you were somewhere else, a bit removed. Not quite here or there, but just kind of watching, and weighing what you saw (“that’s insane,” “that’s awesome,” “no way,” “yes, that”), or some such fleeting mental comment of approval or disapproval, attraction or aversion.
This is, I think, because we have been conditioned to be witnesses and consumers, transacting with the world rather than fully inhabiting it. We have inherited a worldview, developed over centuries, that separates us from our surroundings; we move through this store or that parking lot, this room or that park, thinking our thoughts and planning our plans, but we don’t see ourselves as fundamentally changing the physical composition of the moment with our very presence.
So we mostly move things around, like chess pieces on a static board or — more to the point lately — like deck chairs on the Titanic, and hope that it at least makes things better.
And our language gives us away. Think about it: we’re all so profoundly concerned about “the environment.” The environment? It has occurred to me that this word is patently absurd and grotesquely inadequate to the task of articulating the natural world we inhabit and of which we are not only a part, but by which we are literally made.
When I think of “the environment,” I tend to picture myself with some sort of green circle around me, like a hula hoop or a putting green. There’s me, and then there’s the environment that surrounds me; there’s us — “humanity” — and the environment that surrounds us. Separate, distinct things. The word “environment” itself is rooted in the words for “surrounded” or “encircled”: there’s the thing (me, us), and there’s things around it (the environment, trees, water). It feels like some sort of rudimentary Crayola drawing made by a child still very much rooted in the idea of her own centrality.
This may sound like abstract, irrelevant English-language nerding, but I think it speaks to something incredibly profound and utterly necessary to internalize if we are going to heal.
We need to not only do things differently, we need to see them differently. When we do, we fundamentally change the way we move through the world, which thus alters its composition. Instead of moving deck chairs around on the Titanic, we’ll use the materials at hand to build a new boat and climb in.
If my long hair gets caught on a tree branch as I’m hiking along a Colorado trail, for example, I’m momentarily annoyed and kind of insulted. “Ugh! Stupid tree.” It hurts. If, on that same hike, I see a plastic bag caught under a rock, I usually think to myself, “Stupid people.”
I think I do this because seeing that plastic bag, if I’m honest with myself, also hurts me. I feel pain. I feel injured because the natural world is injured, and I know that this is all one big mess with which I, and the children and people that I love, are inextricably connected. Like most of us, I hate and avoid pain. I can’t bear to feel even the small prick provoked by the sight of that bag, so I quickly externalize the experience and begin on a well-worn mental (or verbal — just ask my husband!) diatribe about the morons who are ruining it all for everyone.
That diatribe feels righteous, for sure, but mainly it feels shitty and hopeless. Picking up the trash feels better, of course, but still has “pissing in the wind” undertones that tend to reinforce an overall dejection and my self-perception as “She Who Tries Really Hard While So Many Others Don’t.”
When we see the environment as separate, we can switch on and off our feelings of connection with it. We can see the wildfires in California (and here in Colorado) as sad or even devastating, and then go make dinner or watch Netflix, and forget. If you’ve ever been in physical pain, you know that it’s impossible to forget, even for a short moment. Pain meds help, but they only mask the symptoms until the body has truly healed.
So it is with the emotional pain of our moment: it’s there, under everything, and it’s almost unbearable. But while we single-mindedly direct our efforts toward turning out and protecting the vote in November, let’s also think about where and how we place ourselves in the narrative picture of this crucial moment in American history.
Are we feeling good about at least doing something, whatever that is? Are we feeling guilty about doing less than we could, and justifying it with stories about the complexity and demands of our lives? Are we doing more than others we know, and feeling both superior and angry about it? Are we endlessly scrolling, feeling the cortisol spike and ease with each post and comment, deluding ourselves into thinking that’s participation? Are we some combination of all of these, and a multitude of others? Do we feel truly part of it?
As it is with the “environment,” so it is with our democracy. It is not some separate and self-contained system, like a grandfather clock, that needs periodic oiling and calibration so that it can function while we go about doing our thing. It is a living organism, and we are its organs.
We need a new orientation with respect to our position in the world and its systems, and new words to describe that relationship. We need to feel not only included, but inextricable.
Think about how you felt when you heard that in the hour after RBG’s death, $6 million was raised. In the second hour, $12 million. Then $30 million. Then $87 million. By this writing, nearly $300 million in small-dollar donations was raised in her name and in the name of a future we must bring into being.
If you gave even $1, you were part of that number. That number is what it is because of you, and without you, it would be a different number. I was part of that number, and I felt it.
If you read those figures and didn’t see yourself, look again. If thoughts about the future feel abstract and disembodied, look again and paint yourself into the picture. If our President thought he was exempt from a virus that affects and connects all of humanity, he is being asked, to whatever degree he is able, to look again.
And finally, if, as we move through an election season unlike any we’ve seen in American history, you feel small, powerless, and afraid, look again: when we each stand for democracy with our vote and with our demands, we’ve defined, secured, and embodied it. Democracy is us.