“Our Awesome Task” is the name of the one poem I’ve written that a fair number of people have seen and commented on to me. In it I end by saying that we have no choice but to accept our limited power right now, “while NEVER accepting injustice and evil, the EVIL system we must transform; using our anger, our outrage, our humanity, our love, burning like a low flame, a pilot light, flaring up as necessary into a burning torch to lead others into a future, a future world, we must, we have to, claim and win.”
I thought of this poem after reading a letter and an article from two progressive men, both young, I’m pretty sure, angry, even bitter about the realities of life under our unjust and oppressive global capitalist regime.
The letter, sent to me in response to an earlier Future Hope column, ended with these slightly edited sentences: “I don’t know how you can keep going. I find it nearly impossible to manage the resentment and anger–born of deep pain–that I feel about what the majority of apathetic people allow to take place in the name of our country. I need to find some thread to hang on to for maintaining any hope for this country.”
The article, by Christopher Mitchell, a student at Macalester College, asked, “Where the hell is the outrage? . . . We have been good Germans for far too long. . . We need an effective opposition. The words, ‘by any means necessary,’ strike a chord. . . Let us remember the timetable is not for us to set. The timetable is set by the thousands of children that died today from starvation and easily prevented diseases.”
I was moved by both of these pieces. I could identify with them. I too have felt and occasionally still do feel the same sense of hopelessness, almost desperation, about our human and environmental condition today.
The question is: how can we avoid wallowing in self-pity and despair, turn that anger into “a pilot light” that never goes out, that keeps us going, that allows our individual lights to shine so that, together with hundreds of thousands of others, we can become “an effective opposition?”
Here’s what I’ve learned over the course of the 33 years that I’ve been an activist for social change.
We need to study history, we need a sense of history, to understand that these individual feelings on our part have been shared by people for millennia and that because of them, there have been many victories in the struggle for a just and peaceful world. History shows that oppression breeds resistance and that, sooner or later, pro-justice movements arise and sometimes win. We need to study what worked and didn’t work with those movements and apply those lessons to our realities here in our own country.
We need to connect with the natural world. We can gain a sense of connection with others and individual peace when we gain an appreciation of our place within nature, our limits and our powers.
We need creative outlets for our anger, or for our feelings of hopelessness. For some people this is found in the development of a spiritual life, a conscious connection to other people and to those leaders who have come before who have taught us to love kindness, do justice, and act humbly and with respect toward those with whom we come into contact. For others, regular physical exercise is a necessary part of maintaining the kind of emotional/spiritual balance needed.
It is essential, absolutely essential, that we have people to love and a broader community of friends with whom to interact. We need to become individuals others will want to befriend, want to love. Anger alone, constantly, is a self-destructive force. We need to balance it with these other aspects of healthy living if we are to be able to then channel that anger into constructive action on behalf of others, on behalf of the best within us.
And of course, we need to be as active as we can be, on a daily basis, in whatever ways our individual interests, experiences and thinking lead us. I’m not talking about mindless activism, striking out blindly. We need politically conscious and intelligent activism, done in conjunction with others in organizations that are as effective as possible while also supportive of those who are part of the organization. Over time, we need to link our various organizations into alliances so that we can become “an effective opposition.”
Finally, we need to recognize that many of those people who seem apathetic or even hostile to our pro-justice cause have similar feelings of anger and hopelessness. One way some of them deal with it is to give in to those feelings and take the attitude that, “You can’t fight City Hall.” They give up, or never even get going. Others, because of negative family or other experiences, join right-wing groups. Still others decide that they are going to take on one cause, one issue only, because the scope of the problem seems much too big to ever have any real impact.
We can have an impact; we can change the world; but only if we keep the faith, work on keeping the faith, hang in there, have revolutionary patience. The lesson of history is that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. used to say, “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”