What Can I Do? Redux

Fifteen months ago, I wrote a post titled “What Can I Do?” about Ferguson, Syria, the Ukraine, depression, and trying to make a difference in the world. In the time since that post, the U.S. has experienced nearly 400 mass shootings. Last week, activists (humans!) protesting police brutality in my old Minneapolis neighborhood were shot by white supremacists. Chicago’s police superintendent just resigned over a cover-up of a shooting that has led to murder charges. The U.K. just voted to bomb Syria. France has increased bombing in Syria in the wake of a terrorist murder spree in Paris. U.S. presidential candidates talk glibly about shutting down mosques. There’s a climate conference happening in Paris that, like its predecessors, seems doomed to handwringing and little meaningful action.

Excuse the profanity, but: things fucking suck right now.

That doesn’t mean everything sucks, nor do things suck for everybody. There are a lot of us who are insulated from the direct effects of catastrophe. I’m in an exurban district this year. My students worry about the local cops giving them traffic tickets, not shooting them. I like my job. My personal problems have become, mostly, typical American middle class ones. Hell, I’ve even gotten work under enough control to be blogging again.

This insulation from the direct effect of crisis makes it all too easy for outrage fatigue to set in—especially when social media is filled with people shouting about the (often imaginary) things they’re angry about, or about the things they want you to be angry about. It’s easy to turn media—social and otherwise—off for a while and think instead about what you want for diner, or when you’re going to get the car in for an oil change, or how to get your kids to do their homework. That’s a perfectly human response.

It does not make the problems go away. Really, this is privilege in a nutshell: the ability to choose when to care about crises, to decide whether or not you want to be affected by them.

My old neighbors don’t get that choice.

Syrian civilians don’t get that choice.

Victims of the flooding in Chennai don’t get that choice.

By all means, turn off social media. I had to for a few weeks. But turn if off knowing that changing the channel doesn’t change the problem.

I wrote, back in August of 2014, about choosing hope, that hope is the opposite of despair and depression. What I ask you to do, what I tell myself to do, is this: choose hope. Choose hope every time. Don’t choose to hope that somebody else solves the problem. When you make choices in how to spend your time, in how to treat the people around you, choose hope.

Speak, in the hope that your words will be heard, knowing that words left unsaid never will be.

Act, in the hope that you can make a difference, even though you can’t see the future.

The Nineties were awash in the slogan “think globally, act locally.” As the internet has flattened the media landscape and our sense of the world, it’s worth remembering that. We don’t have a magic wand. We can, as a global community, share our despair, share our concerns, share even our hope. When we act, though, we have to do it locally. That can mean lobbying your elected representatives. That can mean volunteering. It can be something as simple as talking to your neighbors—you know, the ones with the weird flags on their porch.

We will never be able to bomb an idea. As satisfying as fantasies of wiping out the extremism of Daesh or of making police officers into perfect instruments of peace-keeping may be, they’re still fantasies. We can get our world a little closer to those fantasies with the dozens of decisions we make every day, those times when we choose fear or apathy or hope. I ask you, from my tiny internet pulpit, to choose hope.

How can you do that? Look around. See where the people in your community are hurting, and do what you can to help. Neil Gaiman said, of writing, you put one word after another. It is that easy, and that hard. Choosing hope is the same: it is that easy, and it is that hard.


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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