How to Build a Better Wor(l)d
We are in the middle of a pandemic. People from all walks of life, from the highest government officials to those experiencing poverty, are refusing to wear the masks that would keep us all safe. Protests against police brutality are erupting around the world. The American government is openly using fascist tactics by instituting unconstitutional curfews, sending unmarked vans to capture civilians and hold them without charges, and engaging in voter suppression. Political discourse between the world’s most powerful figures is happening on social media. Reported instances of domestic violence are rising. And although I’ve included citations for all but one of these statements (because let’s be honest, that Twitter account does not need more attention), we cannot trust the news.
This is an incomplete list. We are living in interesting times.
Our Stories; Ourselves
A shared narrative is emerging. Various versions of 2020 Bingo, a meme that both mocks and mourns this series of unfortunate events, include a list of disasters that would have been comical just a few years ago. I’ve begun playing a somewhat similar game: instead of looking for disasters, I’m listening for phrases. When was the last time you made it through 24 hours without hearing or saying any of these?
“If/when it all falls apart…”
“I’m just so lonely.”
“What is time?”
“Living in isolation”
“At the end of the world”
“I feel guilty”
“I need a break from the news”
“I just can’t…”
You’ve heard these words in conversations. You’ve tasted them in your own mouth. You know how frightening it is to feel that they accurately describe your experience; how heart wrenching to know that everyone you love feels the same way. Ironically, the grief of witnessing each others’ suffering is also a source of comfort. We are lost and we are isolated, but we are not alone.
In The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein wrote “Every one is always repeating the whole of them.” Scholars interpret this to mean: we are not what we say, what we do for a living, whom we love, or where we live. We are, instead, that which we repeat. There is something so essentially human, so deeply tied to identity, about the words we say over and over again. These phrases shape our conceptions of ourselves and of the world around us. Speech is more than expression; it is the creation of the reality we choose to inhabit.
Think of a person you love and the phrases you most associate with them. With a moment’s consideration, I can hear my father saying gently, “Honey, where’s your hat?” He is an intellectual; quietly adventurous, always kindly asking questions of himself, the world, and the people around him. He constantly seeks out new ways of thinking, pushing the boundaries of science, music, and philosophy. He takes daily walks to get out of his office. When I visit, we do this together, and every time he takes a moment to ask this question. It’s almost always sunny when I’m there, and he’s very careful about sun damage. He never pushes me, but gently and consistently reminds me to take care of myself. This simple synecdoche is a perfect example of our much larger relationship. Most people have a tendency to repeat certain essential phrases. These are the words that make us who we are.
Right now, we are afraid. We are uncertain. We feel guilty. I am not suggesting we repress or ignore these feelings. Quite the opposite. We arrived at this breaking point by silencing ourselves and each other. For generations, Americans have carefully and systematically developed a dangerous level of complacency. If we allow that to happen again, all is lost.
The Paradox of Hope
Quoting graffiti from the 1960’s, Black Panther Angela Davis calls upon us to “Be realistic. Demand the impossible.” In order to build a better world, we must first imagine the future we’re fighting for. It takes great strength and courage to do both at the same time.
There is an inherent contradiction in this kind of creativity. Recognizing the pain and injustice we face every day, we have no choice but to talk about it. We grieve together, building community in the process. Only by leaning into honesty and vulnerability can we work toward a softer, more caring society. It’s time to dismantle this cold and ableist meritocracy. Justice depends on compassion.
These days, I often find myself thinking of the German word weltschmerz. Literally, this translates to “world pain.” English dictionaries define it as the sorrow “caused by comparison of the actual state of the world with an ideal state.” Living with daily weltzchmerz is intolerable and therefore unsustainable. As bleak as that may sound, I believe it is a cause for celebration. Unsustainable things are necessarily temporary. We will come through this, and the world will be better for it.
Making the Positive Choice
Living within our own narratives, we have the opportunity to reframe them. It is essential to make room for our grief. But then what? We can choose violence and cruelty; we can be bitter about the world that previous generations have bequeathed us. Valid though these feelings are, getting lost in them is not productive.
Alternatively, we can focus our rage. Don’t go to a smash room; swing a hammer to build something. Don’t argue with strangers on the internet; write letters to your Senator. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted. The time for complacency is over.
Whether or not these tactics are available to you, be mindful of the words you say. Things are indeed uncertain, and that is an opportunity for us to choose what happens next. We have lost all sense of time, but gained the freedom to set our own schedules. Our loneliness teaches us to prioritize community. We are witnessing the end of an unjust, apathetic, hate-filled world, and I, for one, do not mourn its loss.
This is the time to expand our vocabularies. Instead of playing passive, nihilistic bingo, we can carefully choose the words we say. Transform anxiety into curiosity, guilt into a resolve to do better, destruction into revolution. Call this new reality into being. Mariame Kaba, a prominent activist and prison abolitionist, tells us that hope is a discipline. That is not an invitation to ignore the state of things. It is a call to action. Now more than ever, we have a responsibility to dream.