I was browsing the FB page of an old friend, and she had posted John Lewis’ last essay, written shortly before his death and published in the NY Times after he died. It’s a magnificent piece, and here’s the link, if you’re interested, or see the end of my drivel:
Anyway…I was most interested in his closing, which said: “When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.“
So, where are we with this? Are we any closer to triumphing over violence, aggression, and war? Are we about the business of laying down the heavy burden of hate, and approaching peace? I would contend that we are not.
I would contend that collectively we are digging our heels into the murk and mire of the status quo of the last several decades. A status quo that says some of us are better than others, and those folks deserve to do whatever they want to do. A status quo that says if you resist, be prepared to lay your life on the line, and have everything you’ve worked for laid to waste. A status quo that says be grateful for what you have, and understand that while rhetoric may proclaim the sky is your limit, your limits are set by systems put in place to intentionally lower the ceiling for many of us. Things will go much better for you if you accept that reality, many of us are told, and you should remain thankful for being allowed to have what you do.
I believe the status quo is more at risk now than ever before, and when you rock the foundations of a system, even the top wobbles. In an earthquake, it’s pretty scary to be up so high when the walls shake and the floor bounces and you’re not sure if you’re in for a fall. And we all know – it’s not the fall that kills you, it’s that sudden stop. When you hit the ground. Nobody wants to hit the ground, especially if you’ve been up so high.
This is what we’re up against, I believe – some of us trying desperately to avoid hitting the ground. The building is shaking, and there is panic, fear. Others of us, who have always been at ground level, angry because we’ve never seen the top, and it looks as though it’s carefree up there. Never gotten the expansive view, the big sky, the space to breathe freely. Same place, different perspective, different experience.
I am beginning to think such views from the top are unnatural, and the result of much hubris. Humans have been forced to employ natural resources and invent mechanical beasts of burden to elevate ourselves to those heights, literally and figuratively. Some of the most wealthy have amassed their fortunes via industries that harvest metals from the ground, and converting that to build machines and structures that raise them above the ground level. It’s not our natural state, however, and sometimes…well, sometimes they fall unceremoniously back down to Earth. Natural forces may reclaim the literal structures and machinery, while man-made economies may falter. No matter how high, it’s a house of cards.
What does peace look like? Does it look like limousines and penthouse apartments? Does it look like big-screen televisions and high-end electronics? Does it look like travel to exotic places? Or does it look like no fighting in the streets, being unafraid to travel in those streets? Or does it look like not having to look over your shoulder when attending a concert or a sports event, or grocery shopping? Maybe it looks like the security of knowing that when your child has a high fever, you can acquire quality medical care that will provide some remedy. We need to know what peace looks like before we can achieve it.
For me, peace looks like not having to worry quite so much about the people I love. Not having that niggling thought in the back of my head that my friends’ son, who is a very sweet 20-something Black guy. He’s a big guy, who likes to hug people. Will he meet some intolerant person who sees only a threat? Peace will look like being able to do ordinary things without fear, like going to 24-hour stores in the middle of the night if I’m craving a snack. It will look like not having to wonder whether or not I’ve lost my job because I performed badly, or because white superiority dictated that a white man was the better choice to have it. Peace will look more like not having to be constantly on guard about how I express myself, what I wear, what I say, how I think. It will look a lot like not having to worry about whether someone has a gun on their person, and might use it on me if we have an argument about the last bottle of hand sanitizer on the shelf in Walgreen’s. It will look a lot like freedom, and it will be a lot like liberation.
It is not lost on me how long that might take. We’ve been building that prison for hundreds of years now, and it’s quite a formidable structure. It’s going to take a few minutes to repurpose that, to come up with a different way. If we do that, however, the rewards will be immeasurable. We cannot even begin to imagine a world where guns would not be necessary, and so we are frantically, desperately, clinging to these hunks of metal, bigger and bigger, to “protect” ourselves. If we have money and nice things, we are forever afraid of who is coming to take them. If we don’t have money and nice things, we are forever trying to get them, often by any means necessary. That is a lose-lose scenario.
I believe we can do this, although like John Lewis, I might not see it before I die. I hate thinking about dying, so I try not to do it, but it’s a reality. It’s going to happen at some point, but that’s not today. Today, I’ve got to figure out how not to put another brick into the wall of this prison we’ve been building, how to lay down the tools that have built my oppression. I don’t have time for arguing about whether or not it’s the right time, or the right way, or whose fault it is. It is what it is, and that’s all that it is, and what it is needs to change. Period.
Audre Lorde once said, “You can’t dismantle the Master’s house with the Master’s tools.”. So I had better figure out who the Master is, and give him back his tools. For me right now, the Master is my complicity with the status quo that is so oppressive. The status quo is about white supremacy and social caste, but systems are intersectional and so enmeshed. Accordingly, I may not be able to totally eliminate my complicity, but I can at least be aware of it, and make different choices when and where I can. That may seem like a small thing, in the general schema, but perhaps small things can add up. Knowing what I am doing, and why I am doing it, allows me to stand more in my integrity, and I believe that allows me to speak truth and intentionally cause no further harm. Millions of people doing that will make a difference, I believe.
People talk a lot about personal responsibility, and I have some issues with that, in terms of knowing what I’m responsible FOR. I’m not sure we all agree on the rules of engagement, but that’s another story. For me, I know that I’m not responsible for participating in systems that cause harm. I didn’t create them, but I can call them out. I’m not responsible for supporting systems that keep people oppressed. I may have to contribute, because the law says I must, but I should at least know why I’m doing that. I’m responsible for being present in my skin, for doing things that don’t harm other people. I’ve harmed other people in my life, and that doesn’t feel good, so I just need to be doing something different now. We all do, because none of us is perfect.
John Lewis charged us with getting into “good trouble”. I stay in trouble, but I’m not sure it’s “good trouble”. We’ll see. All I know is that I can’t go on my merry way and say nothing after seeing people gunned down because there is no viable mental health system in this country, seeing people freezing to death in their homes and cars because politics and greed dictated a dysfunctional power system that could not provide them with heat, seeing people die because they could not afford health insurance. That is not peace. That is not making anybody great again. That is not justice. Sometimes, that is simply not human.