Searching for Inspiration on Dark Days

I’ve been thinking a lot about actionable steps, recently. Amid the murders in Charleston. Following the deaths of Walter Scott, Kalief Browder, Michael Brown, and far, far too many others.

I’ve read articles on how to be an ally, read commentary and analysis on the perpetual racism pervading our society. I’ve added my voice to those calling for change. I’ve joined mailing lists calling for action, attended protests and demonstrations. I’ve given financially where I can.

And none of it feels like enough. Nothing feels like it’s changing.

I woke this morning with the words of Oscar Wilde ringing in my head:

We did not dare to breathe a prayer,
Or give our anguish scope:
Something was dead in each of us,
And what was dead was Hope.

I rather wanted to spend the day hiding in my closet sobbing silently at all the ills in the world, but that didn’t seem like it would do anybody much of any good.

Besides, who am I to take the bench when people of color are dying? Not everyone has the privileged to just look away.

As I am wont to do at such times of despair, I re-read Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus.

They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.

I generally suspect that I’m the only one who finds the words of Camus a comfort. Who, after all, likes to imagine that “the workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd” than the fate of Sisyphus. The man who defied the gods and was pushed to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain.

Sisyphus, “powerless and rebellious.” (impuissant et révolté)

What an interesting juxtaposition of words!

Sisyphus knew he was powerless and yet he rebelled. The Gods couldn’t punish him, for still, he rebelled.

In Power and Powerlessness, John Gaventa examined the role of social power in maintaining the oppression of the poor in the Appalachian Valley.

Gaventa identified what he calls the three dimensions of power.

In the first dimension, A has power over B insofar as A is has more resources or can use more force to coerce B. The first dimension is a fair fight, where one side is stronger than the other.

In the second dimension, A constructs barriers to diminish B’s participation. Voter ID laws, monolingual meetings. In the second dimension, A rigs the game.

The third dimension is the most insidious. Not only does A control and shape the agenda, but A’s power is so absolute that A influences the way B sees the conflict. In the third dimension, B is not even sure she’s oppressed. It’s a woman who just naturally does all the house work.

I sometimes think that the pervasiveness of racism in America stems from Whites’ inability to reach this total level of dominance.

We brought people over as chattel and expected them to obey. We beat them and tortured them and did unspeakable things to break them, but they continued to resist.

We fancied ourselves as gods, and yet among those who were most powerless we found ourselves impotent. Unable to exert total power. Still they rebelled.

There is no fate that can not be surmounted by scorn.

Sisyphus is stronger than his rock.

But I imagine that it’s of little comfort to one who looks back on generations of oppression, who looks around to see their brothers and sisters dying. It’s of little comfort that some dead, French philosopher thinks you’ve won.

Yet there is something in this, I think –

For the battle goes on.

The battle goes on, and slowly bending the arc of the moral universe can feel very much like futile labor, it can feel like an effort in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing.

But still the work goes on.

For we know that all is not, has not been, exhausted, and we know that fate is a human matter, which must be settled among men.

And there is so much work for us to do.


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