I am heartbroken. And I find myself trying to hold on to two things that do not want to be held in the same hand: Love, and rage.
I’m not great at rage. I grew up in a home where rage was expressed, in the Buddhist parlance, “unskillfully.” In that it was wielded like a hammer by a person in power (a parent) against a powerless person (a child).
So I grew to be very avoidant of feelings of rage and anger. I learned to avoid them in other people by bending to their needs and making them laugh. I learned to repress those same feelings in myself, all of which led to depression and many years of needless torment and suffering.
So I admit to a bias toward love, toward the soothing words of Martin Luther King, Jr., Mister Rogers, Sharon Salzberg, and many others. Witness a guiding quote for me, from Dr. King’s 1968 speech, “Where Do We Go From Here.” It’s from a passage where King reaffirms his commitment to nonviolence resistance.
“And I say to you, I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love.”
And like I said I find great comfort in these words. But if I am understanding what I’m hearing from people of color, it is that they don’t want me to seek comfort right now. I am being asked to witness and accompany my black and brown neighbors in their rage. Here’s another King quote that has been making the rounds.
“And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? … It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
Say it, Doctor.
From what I know personally, rage and anger need to be expressed. To ignore those feelings or repress them is a dangerous mistake. I will own that as a white person with my own mountain of baggage, I want to skip the anger part and go straight to the healing. Skip the reckoning and go straight to the reconciliation. To the fixing. To the forgiveness.
And what I am hearing when I see the protests, and hear the words of people of color in my extended community, is that we are not there yet. That part of white supremacy is the censoring and cleaning of the narrative. Remember when we fixed racism in 2008? Or in the feel-good 90s of my youth? There we were, skipping to the end. Not doing the work. Not facing our debts.
I will also own to falling into hopelessness and apathy as the extent of entrenched racism became evident to me (through the illuminating activism of the Black Lives Matter movement, among others.) Yet another senseless killing of a black human being. Just part and parcel of the general awfulness, the freight train headed toward a brick wall, that is early 21st century America.
I recently heard some stirring words about hopelessness, via human rights activist Ben Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative (see the book/film Just Mercy). In an interview with Preet Bharara , Stevenson said, “I actually think that hopelessness is the enemy of justice. And injustice prevails where hopelessness persists.”
And further: “…You’re either hopeful or you’re the problem. There’s no real middle ground. We have to keep pushing, keep wanting more and more. More mercy, more compassion, more justice, more opportunity.”
I’ve also wasted years of my life singing the song of cynicism. It informed my worldview, my dating life, my art making. Part of my personal healing work has been laying cynicism to rest.
I came by cynicism honestly—Through suffering. It’s a useful worldview for the perpetually heartbroken. It protects against further heartbreak and disappointment. But it did not serve me, in that it did not lead to anything like thriving or happiness. And furthermore, it self-fulfills. It spreads like spiritual mold. Author James McBride spoke to this in a recent interview over at It’s Been A Minute: “Cynicism does not inspire creativity. Cynicism inspires more cynicism.”
So: Hopelessness and cynicism are part of the problem. Hopelessness and cynicism are excuses for white people to not engage, to sit back, to let injustice go on. If you’re not engaged, if you’re not voting, if you’re not involved locally…Can you see how you’re letting it happen?
[Ed. I should add that I also believe shame is part of the problem.]
Maybe hope is what can transform anger into something constructive and redemptive. Hopeless rage is an invitation for violence, for destruction, for burning it all down. Hopeful rage sounds like a cousin of my friend, Strong Demanding Love: We are full of rage because our loved ones have been hurt. And we will make this right because we are powered by limitless, ferocious love. And there’s no one and no thing that can resist our love.
I like this model more. And another thing to consider. Yes, anger and rage are powerful animating and energizing forces. Yes, much good can come from people who are lit up by anger. But, as I heard on Code Switch recently, “Anger is a hard emotion to sustain.” [ed. I wish I could remember the speaker or the episode. I believe it was from the episode, Why Now, White People?]
Anger has my friends and community up in arms, in a flurry of activism. And it is beautiful to behold. But I fear we will tire and burn out and leave our black and brown neighbors out in the cold. Again.
I think we need to think of this as a long walk, not a sprint. Racial justice is a centuries-old trauma. It will not be healed this year or this decade. How are we going to show up for the next 10, 20, 50 years? How are we going to show up for the remainder of our lives?
I think the answer lies somewhere in that strong, demanding love. And in hope. And anger too.
We also need a goal to walk towards. I hear a lot about what we are walking away from, what we don’t want. And there is power in that. I think we’re seeing that every day. Hell no, we don’t want police violence. We don’t want white supremacy, we don’t want racism, we don’t want injustice.
I think eventually we will need to become experts on what we DO want. What does this better society look like? What does justice look like? What does a thriving human being look like?
I’m talking about dreams. Let’s talk about dreams. More to come.
I have endeavored in this post to quote Martin Luther King, Jr. in a way that retains the original context and meaning of his words. Much has been said On Internet about the phenomenon of white people posting King quotes out of context. I hope I have not done this in this post or in the past. I have, for instance, carried MLK quotes to women’s marches over the past 3 years. If I have done wrong, I am sorry.