Over the past few weeks a lot has happened in national news, ranging from downright diabolical to morally triumphant. Much has been said about all of it, and my intention here is not to say more about the events themselves, but to explore the honest space between optimism and pessimism as modes of response.
After the AME Church massacre in Charleston, I became part of the conversation among activists overwhelmed with devastation and outrage. This emotional response to the massacre and willingness to embrace the antiracist work yet to be done felt deeply appropriate, particularly in contrast with the voices of oblivious disinterest and, even worse, what Danielle Laporte calls unconscious optimism. I was taken aback by the sentiment of don’t-worry-be-happy underlying so much of the commentary on my newsfeed the day after nine people had been murdered in cold blood by another monstrous product of racism. I was floored by the onslaught of utterances in the vein of its-all-going-to-be-okay when, clearly, it isn’t so long as we permit each other to choose violent devolution over genuine moral growth. I saw positive denial masquerade as spirituality and felt the need to remind myself that…
We propagate tragedies—whether personal or collective—when we do not acknowledge them (pain)fully and do the humbling work they inspire.
Then some good happened. There was the “Bridge to Peace”, where thousands of people came together to demonstrate solidarity in the wake of a nightmare. There was the Supreme Court’s ruling that granted marriage to everyone regardless of sexual orientation and recognized the validity of healthcare as a universal right. I felt a deep urge to celebrate these incremental victories as a sign of our moral consideration ratcheting upwards. I was giddy and hopeful and avidly watching my newsfeed morph into a cascade of unicorns and rainbows and #LoveWins.
IN ANY EVENT: I did not get to celebrate. To bring up good news items in certain circles is to be effectively scolded for celebrating when there is still so much bad that needs fixing. I’ve been told, for example, by some queer activists that marriage rights shouldn’t be celebrated so long as queer youth are still being kicked out of their homes and committing suicide. I’ve also been told by some progressives that universal healthcare shouldn’t be celebrated considering how obviously flawed and inadequate Obamacare really is. I was made to feel dumb for feeling any gratitude at all. But I knew, with every cell of my body, that …
Dismissive disapproval is as inappropriate and unhelpful a response as unconscious optimism.
If we must acknowledge painful tragedies, then we must also acknowledge incremental improvements. We can acknowledge both. If we can entertain despair in the wake of senseless violence then we can entertain hope in the wake of partial victories. We can feel both.
And if the goal, ultimately, is to decrease suffering then we will no doubt have to look at all the hard stuff, like systemic racism and homelessness among queer youth, and take constructive action (including meditation). But can’t we do so without dismissing all of these little imperfect victories along the way? Isn’t the dismissal of gratitude in favor of insisting that nothing is ever good enough itself a cause of suffering? In order to reach a goal, don’t we have to embody the goal?