Last month, Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden had a public conversation about democracy, transparency, whistleblowing and more. In the course of it, Snowden – who was of course Skyping in from Moscow – said that without Ellsberg’s example he would not have done what he did to expose the extent to which the NSA was spying on millions of ordinary people. It was an extraordinary declaration. It meant that the consequences of Ellsberg’s release of the top-secret Pentagon Papers in 1971 were not limited to the impact on a presidency and a war in the 1970s. The consequences were not limited to people alive at that moment. His act was to have an impact on people decades later – Snowden was born 12 years after Ellsberg risked his future for the sake of his principles. Actions often ripple far beyond their immediate objective, and remembering this is reason to live by principle and act in hope that what you do matters, even when results are unlikely to be immediate or obvious.Lately I've been struggling with hope. I'm a lifelong activist, and I don't recall ever feeling this way before. I could never have put the time and energy into activism if I felt my actions -- our collective actions -- were useless. I know that the results of our actions are cumulative -- that no one action alone creates change -- and that, as the quote on the sidebar of this blog says, we may never know what actions will eventually lead to a result. Change is created by movements, and movements may be many generations long.
The most important effects are often the most indirect. I sometimes wonder when I’m at a mass march like the Women’s March a month ago whether the reason it matters is because some unknown young person is going to find her purpose in life that will only be evident to the rest of us when she changes the world in 20 years, when she becomes a great liberator.
I began talking about hope in 2003, in the bleak days after the war in Iraq was launched. Fourteen years later, I use the term hope because it navigates a way forward between the false certainties of optimism and of pessimism, and the complacency or passivity that goes with both. Optimism assumes that all will go well without our effort; pessimism assumes it’s all irredeemable; both let us stay home and do nothing. Hope for me has meant a sense that the future is unpredictable, and that we don’t actually know what will happen, but know we may be able write it ourselves.
Hope is a belief that what we do might matter, an understanding that the future is not yet written. It’s informed, astute open-mindedness about what can happen and what role we may play in it. Hope looks forward, but it draws its energies from the past, from knowing histories, including our victories, and their complexities and imperfections. It means not being the perfect that is the enemy of the good, not snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, not assuming you know what will happen when the future is unwritten, and part of what happens is up to us.
I knew all that in my head, but I couldn't feel it in my heart anymore. Instead I felt despair. And despair is the enemy of change.
Despair fuels for the other side -- the people who destroy our planet for profit, who make war for profit, who make hate, who divide and oppress, and enrich themselves at our expense.
|This wall is part of The Wall.|
The wall represents all the forces of oppression. The wall is war, torture, bigotry, hatred, othering. The wall is sexism and misogyny, racism and homophobia, the oppression of workers, the disregard for human rights, the disregard for democracy, the destruction of the environment.
The wall is huge -- so tall that, standing against it, we can't see the top, and so wide that it eclipses at the horizon.
But the wall is not impregnable.
All along the wall, there are groups of people, pushing against it with both their hands. One person alone, no matter how great their strength or how just their cause, can never break even one tiny fragment of the wall. But when enough people get together, and all push in the same area and in the same direction, one day that section of wall crumbles. And we break through. And change is created.
Does the wall ever disappear completely? No, of course not. The wall is part of human civilization -- the forces that maintain the status quo, because they profit from it in some way. The hands on the wall are part of society, too.
In that StoryCorps interview, my friend asked me, "When did you first realize you wanted to be someone with both hands on the wall?"
At that moment, a light went on in my head. I hadn't seen myself that way before. Yes, I wanted to have both hands on the wall -- and I wanted to help others find their courage and hope to do so, too.
I'm realizing now that I've temporarily lost my way. Now I can return with more empathy for how people lose hope, why activists give up.
It's easy to despair. There's a lot out there pushing us in that direction. It's easy to be cynical, and cynicism is only a half-step from apathy, or at least inertia. I've never been apathetic, but if I give in to despair -- if I forget that the future is unwritten -- I might as well be.
I must refuse. Right now, my act of resistance is to resist the forces of cynicism and despair.
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You can read more excellent articles by Rebecca Solnit here at The Guardian website. Some other highlights: "Every protest shifts the world's balance and "Thank you, climate strikers. Your actions matter and your power will be felt".