Have you ever wondered what choices you would have made during great upheavals of the past? I like to believe that I would have been a suffragette — though not one who got thrown in jail and went on hunger strikes. I also hope I would have been an abolitionist. Again, not of the Harriet Tubman caliber; I’m more of a supporting player, the kind who offered hiding spaces for escaping slaves. Possibly I would have decried Abraham Lincoln for not acting fast enough to abolish slavery.
No need to mull over this question any longer. Contemporary crises are providing plenty of opportunity to be heroic in fact, not just daydreams. We seem to be engaged in a mighty struggle between the forces of light, hope, progress, love — even our very survival as a species — against the forces of darkness, anger, and a desperation to perpetuate broken systems which are killing us. I, for one, wish to win this battle — which means, actively engaging in the struggle, like the suffragettes and abolitionists before us.
Obviously, we’re in for one helluva ride. From mass shootings to despicable and deadly racism to unspeakable income inequality to the fossil fuel industry fighting for their profits despite the death and destruction that means for current and future generations — in the United States alone, the challenges are breathtaking. To prevail — and losing is really not an option — we must be tough in our love, strong in our hope and determination, creative, compassionate, resilient, and optimistic. In other words, we must be happy, as peculiar as that may sound. We need to be our best.
Clearly, we won’t be walking around with smiley faces all the time. The night of the San Bernadino massacre, I read a friend’s despairing Facebook post. I wanted to write something encouraging, but couldn’t figure out how to respond. Sometimes it’s just too dark to see.
The next morning, though, the mandate was clear: for both collective and individual well being, we must cultivate optimism (which is a learned trait, not genetically pre-determined) and take action. The two really go hand-in-hand — as does happiness. Happier people are more optimistic and active, and optimistic people are happier and take action. Abraham Lincoln, it turns out, is an inspiring role model. Doris Kearns Godwin’s amazing book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abram Lincoln portrays a president who was fairly happy, despite his own and the country’s intense suffering. He was also deeply optimistic with an admirable capacity to learn from failure and loss and move forward — to the great and lasting benefit of humankind.
Sticking with war leaders, here’s a helpful observation from Winston Churchill: “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
That’s certainly how climate warrior Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything describes today’s situation. While her book is sobering, Klein is also hopeful. “I am convinced that climate change represents a historic opportunity,” she writes. The needed transformations “would get to the root of why we are facing serial crises in the first place, and would leave us with both a more habitable climate than the one we are headed for and a far more just economy than the one we have right now.”
There’s a very important caveat: optimism needs to be grounded and realistic. Admiral James Stockdale, the highest ranking naval officer to be held prisoner during the Vietnam War, observed that the POWs most likely to survive that experience were those with reality-based optimism. The prisoners who thought they would be released almost immediately as well as the POWs who believed they would never be released – neither of those groups fared well. Stockdale said, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you cannot afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.”
Our current reality has so many brutal facts, I’m not sure any of us can truly confront them all. At the same time, we must be hopeful — and that’s not delusional. As Howard Zinn says, “To be hopeful in bad times is based on the fact that human history is not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act.”
Even with the energy to act, you may wonder, what to do? I, for one, am going to the massive “Jobs, Justice, and Climate” rally in Boston on December 12th. I won’t get home from the rally in time for one of my community’s traditional holiday parties, but, hello??? What would Harriet Tubman have done? Or Elizabeth Cady Stanton? Plus, I expect the event to be full of joy.
Joyful, yes — and totally serious. No one should ever conflate non-violent protest — no matter how creative or playful — with a lack of grit or determination. Still, what can you do? The options are endless. Take a look at this awe-inspiring list of 198 methods of non-violent action by the brilliant Gene Sharp. There are so many more ways to get involved. Here are some other examples:
- Contribute to legal defense funds for those who have gone the non-violent disobedience route;
- Put a “Black Lives Matter” sign in your front lawn;
- Host a refugee family;
- Just be present. This fall, a small band of protesters camped out in the middle of a major street in Montpelier, as part of an effort to block a fracked gas pipeline from going through Vermont. The weather was miserable, and I heard that their spirits were low. I went and sat with them in one of their pup tents for awhile, wanting them to know they were not alone; and
- Feed people. When I sat with the protesters, I witnessed a steady stream of well wishers bringing food and hot coffee. Their gifts were well received.
Whatever you do, please be kind. There is enough hatred in the world already. Be determined, yes, and tough — but compassionate. Here, too, we have Abraham Lincoln as a guide. Team of Rivals describes a deeply empathetic, kind human being. He refused to be drawn into hate speech, and had a heart full of forgiveness. He understood that each of us is imperfect, and a product of our own times and places. Lincoln remains a beacon of hope — along with the millions of alive and lively environmental, economic, and social justice activists worldwide. We are the heroes we’ve been waiting for. May we be up to the task.