What Can I Do?

Yesterday was a dark day. It’s been a bad week for news. Social media was full of horrors from Ferguson and stories about depression. (Never mind Gaza, Ukraine, and Iraq.) I continue to fight a terrible head cold and have been worn down physically. It was also one of the days that I waited for a phone call about a job that never came. Some big things, some small things, all pulling in one direction: down.

I’m not going to lie. I felt the way Erica Moen describes in the middle part of this comic. Or like George Bailey on the bridge wishing he’d never been born. It’s not the darkest place I’ve gone to (and I’m better today), but I kept coming back to one question:

What can I do?

What can I do to make a world where my black friends and neighbors do not have to worry about their sons getting shot by the men and women who are supposed to be protecting the community?

What can I do to make a world where our response to a crisis isn’t “how can this be happening in America?” but “how can this be happening to human beings?”

What can I do beside shake my fist at the sky as I sink into the morass?

I clung to this question, because it was the only way I could see out of the dark place I’d gotten to.

Look, I’m just a guy. I’m a privileged guy, too, even when I’m hurting. The last time I worried about the cops was when they were taking my picture during post-9/11 protests. I have an intact, supportive family and a lot more education than most people. I live in a house that is only partly owned by the bank. That didn’t stop me from tearing up when I saw the photo of the Ferguson protest at Howard University, or read Rembert Browne’s Grantland piece this morning.  Humans should not be doing these things to each other.

This is what I’ve got: my words and my vocation. Words dragged me briefly to the forefront of those protests 13 years ago. I can write. I can speak out. I can struggle to make the feelings I’m wrestling with intelligible, along with the situations that provoke them. Words matter. Words make people think and make people feel. I will do what I can to write meaningfully, whether that’s stories that help people step out of the dreary for a few hours or essays that make people think or terrible over-referential humor that makes people shake their heads.

The other one is more important. I get to be a teacher. I see sixth graders already leery of anybody in a uniform. I listen to high schoolers talk earnestly about which county has worse police. I see students buying into what society has told them about themselves. I see students fighting that. And I get to be a part of what they learn. I can make a difference. I can help them find their voices. I can listen. If I do that job well, if I listen and teach and believe in the students…I can help them hope.

Hope. We usually oppose it to despair, but it’s a hell of a good opposite for depression, too. When those veils come down, nothing good matters. You can know you’re loved. You can know people would hurt if you’re gone. You can even know, in some puny intellectual way, that things are likely to get better eventually. On the darkest days, though, you can’t believe it. Tomorrow doesn’t matter because today stretches forever, and today is awful.

That is why I clung to “what can I do?” If there’s any answer —no matter how small—to that question beyond “end it all,” then there is hope. There is hope. Hope alone won’t do the work, won’t make the changes. Hope won’t armor you against the evils of the world. But if you have hope, you can get out of bed. You can do.  Hope keeps the door to the future open. Even if it’s just open a crack, that crack breaks the darkness with a little light.

What can you do? Keep the door open. Keep hoping and asking yourself what you can do. Then go out and do it.

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  1. Hello.
    My name is Lori and I have been reading your blog for a while now. I was a high school teacher for four years and a CC comm teacher for five but now I work in the business world. When I was teaching high school, the experienced teachers told me they had one marker of a successful school year. If they could help just one kid, ONE, by making a difference for that ONE kid, their year would be considered successful. The truth is by teaching, you often help more than one but you usually don’t know it until years later. You never know where you will make a difference so you need to keep on doing what you do.

    So how can you save the world? One at a time.

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