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The Next Four Years: Turning Grief Into Action

One phrase describes how many people feel about this next chapter of the American experiment in self-rule: We fear the worst.




One phrase describes how many people feel about this next chapter of the American experiment in self-rule: We fear the worst. In the face of what could come next – from ending a national health plan to decimating unions to deporting millions of hard-working people to ignoring climate change – thoughtful people have sent out lists of things to do. A Yale historian made a list of 20 tasks. A former Silicon Valley exec and Quaker offers five. The Los Angeles Times even ran a piece filled with suggestions for distraught creative types that included disconnecting from it all.

As activists and advocates for justice, we indeed face serious challenges, and our times will require careful perseverance before the triumvirate of national institutions arrayed against our understanding of justice. We have known what the House and the Senate have wanted to do for a number of years. Now we will have a White House prepared to shape and implement those policies, and there’s likely a judiciary to back them up. Against those odds some local governments and states have committed to opposing what could be most damaging, but the bottom line in our country is always what people do.

Over the years I have learned that many elected bodies don’t do much of anything to relieve the pain and suffering caused by institutional policies unless people work together and push for it. As individuals we get tired. As organizations we run out of steam and money. The big institutions that dominate our lives – corporations and governments – overwhelm us with their staying power. So it feels timely to review a few tools we can use to remain strong:

  • Grieve: We can acknowledge that this impending time amounts to a different and more difficult situation than we have faced in many decades, that the dynamics we have relied upon just shifted against us painfully. The democracy we knew took a new configuration and more people will suffer as a result. We feel the loss. We can sense our deep disappointment. We can know its shape and contours inside us as well as outside. We can stay in touch with this grief until it clarifies our situation.
  • Do Solitude: Time alone matters so that the bees buzzing in our brain settle again. Walking on the sand or hiking a trail can calm our minds and put issues in perspective. Some people have other practices – meditation or yoga or running – that they use, because the cellphone and the Internet do not calm us or prepare us for activism.
  • Stay Centered: In my experience, grief and solitude lead me deeper into the core of my sense of self and help clarify my values and underscore my commitments. The words I use for these must be mine, not someone else’s, certainly not another’s cliché. Once I have said these to myself, I can hold onto them, and I can say them to others. These values and commitments become a “mission statement,” to use the business term, and they help me stay focused, as I often repeat the words to myself like a mantra.
  • Act Everyday: What we face must not drive us into hiding or retreat – unless it is for a strategic purpose. This is not a time to lower our profile, but to stand for those values we reaffirmed in staying centered. Do something – online or on a picket line, or in a meeting or in a conversation; or if you are fortunate enough, through your work. Saint Paul told people resisting the great Roman Empire, “Our only defense, our only hope is a life of integrity.” Stick with that.
  • Work in Your Community: As much as we focus on ourselves, we cannot make change alone, so working with others who share our perspectives and our goals matters. That’s Organizing 101. But we cannot maintain our courage in the face of the unknown if we only stir one another’s hysteria, or reinforce notions not grounded in a real world. People working together bring change – and encouragement.

Fortunately some people have been working along these lines to help us be more effective. You probably know some of them or you are part of them. Most recently I’ve been impressed by the material a group of former Congressional staffers put together called INDIVISIBLE. In two dozen pages, they provide a solid blueprint for effectively pressuring elected officials on public policy issues. It could be a useful tool in your area.

Faith communities have long urged members to work together for common values. If you are part of one, look on websites for guidelines that enable people to talk across dividing lines – whether they are ideological, political, ethnic or sexual. Once a conversation begins, it can uncork a powerful potential for common action.

At the Golden Globe awards, Meryl Streep told her audience: “Actors take a broken heart and make it into art.” As activists we take our grief, and turn it into action.

Lincoln Memorial photo by Jeff Kubina

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