"In the worst of times, we can become the best of our selves."
As I was thinking about this article, the opening line to the Charles Dickins novel A Tale of Two Cities came to mind. While written in 1859, these words amazingly reflect the mood of the country today.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…”
Certainly, if you are an immigrant or a Muslim living in America, these are not good times. So too if you are elderly or low income and relying on Medicaid or the Affordable Care Act for your health insurance these times are worrisome. The same can be said if you care about clean air or clean water or climate change. But we must also recognize that for some, these are good times. The stock market has hit an all-time high. Tax cuts for the wealthy seem to be around the corner and government regulations on all types of businesses are being rolled back. Some economists tell us that we are nearly at full employment. Depending on where you sit in society, these are truly the best of times or the worst of times.
I understand that history presses down on some people harder than others, but how we respond to each situation is dependent on our point of view. We choose whether to be hopeful or woeful in response to our circumstances. Howard Zinn, activists, professor and bestselling author (whose books may be banned in Arkansas) wrote:
“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, and kindness.…The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
This idea of remaining positive in bad times may seem a bit Pollyannaish, but do we really have a choice? I think we have seen the answer already. Yes, people are in fear of being deported, but there is a growing Sanctuary movement and scores of volunteers are walking arm in arm with potential deportees so they don’t have to go through this process alone. When the Muslim ban was announced, thousands of people appeared at airports across the nation to stand in solidarity with those being singled out. Politicians are denouncing credible news outlets as an “enemy of the people” and the response has been a flourish of new subscribers to these very same outlets.
Systems Theory guru Peter Senge advises that one should look for unintended consequences when considering a course of action. The unintended consequence of the recent actions by the Republican controlled federal government is an awakening of activism, the level of which has not been seen in a least a generation. This renewed activism is of itself a “marvelous victory” which should be celebrated
So, the answer to how one remains hopeful in bad times is this:
· Focus on what you can do and do it.
· Whatever you do, do it in community with others
· Celebrate the small victories
Bad times come and go. What remains is how we will remember our own actions during these times of turmoil. Did we stand up or did we cower? Did we organize others or did we wring our hands in despair?
In the worst of times, we can become the best of our selves.
Michael Soika has been a community activist for more than 30 years working on issues of social and economic justice. His work for justice is anchored by his spiritual formation first as a Catholic and now as a Quaker.