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Original Essays | September 9, 2013 5 comments
Editor's note: Chris Bolton is not only a former Powell's employee, he was also once the primary writer for this blog. So we are particularly proud... Continue »
The Impossible Will Take a Little Whileby Paul Rogat Loeb
One antidote to this despair, I thought, would be to create a book on political hope. I wanted to inspire people to keep on working to create a more humane world, no matter how difficult the journey. I'd actually considered the idea back in the reign of Bush the elder. I took some notes and clipped some essays. Then I put it on the back burner when Bill Clinton got elected, and instead wrote Soul of a Citizen.
Bush's post-9/11 arrogance brought me back to the project of hope, though I'd never anticipated how badly so many of us would need it. Starting with the writers who've kept me going over the years, I gathered together a chorus of the most powerful voices I could find. Looking for the historical, political, and spiritual frameworks that help people to persist, I contacted people like Alice Walker, Howard Zinn, Jonathan Kozol, Marian Wright Edelman, Cornel West, and Terry Tempest Williams. Some wrote fresh essays. Others modified existing work. I worked with Zinn to weave together three of his essays, which touched on hope and persistence. I found two Alice Walker pieces, from twenty years apart, which she graciously agreed to let me join together. I also included sparks of imagination from some of my favorite poets, like Maya Angelou, W. H. Auden, Wendell Berry, Eduardo Galeano, Seamus Heaney, Pablo Neruda, and Adrienne Rich. For key activists who were less accessible, like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Václav Havel, I pored through their memoirs, essays, and speeches, weaving together stories they'd already written on how to persist through hard times.
Appropriately for a book about the power of common action, The Impossible's full flowering emerged from a community of ordinary citizens. Roughly once a month, I send out articles that I write to an email list of subscribers (from my web site, www.paulloeb.org). As part of creating the book, I sent a message asking which essays or writers had most inspired people. Many of the answers were expected the same people I'd already admired and contacted. I also received some wonderful unsolicited essays and suggestions, some from well-known writers I'd already thought of, or should have: I was about to write to the Chilean playwright and novelist Ariel Dorfman when he sent his wonderful memoir, as he'd heard about the project from a friend; feminist and environmental writer Susan Griffin emailed an amazing piece on the radical power of imagination another perfect fit. But I also got amazing pieces by totally unknown writers, including some of the most inspiring in the book.
A great piece came in from an ordinary Boeing worker and peace activist. His wife grew up in Zambia, formerly Northern Rhodesia, and he sent in an essay about the nonviolent revolution that drove the British out. At one point, when it had spread throughout the country, the British brought in a stern-jawed colonial administrator to put down the uprising. One of the organizers got the idea of meeting him at the airport with hundreds of the largest women she could find all naked. The plane landed, and the administrator looked out on this sea of huge, naked women, waving and singing songs. This wasn't in the colonial handbook. He panicked, and asked the pilot to take him back to England. A few weeks later, Zambia had its freedom. I can't think about that story without being hopeful.
Some pieces in The Impossible directly address our difficult current time. Others examine how people persisted in the struggles of the past: what it was like to confront South African apartheid, the Eastern European dictatorships, and Mississippi's entrenched segregation. Still others have seemingly little to do with politics, but offer hope that spans the personal and the public. I love environmental writer Diane Ackerman's wonderful memoir of volunteering on a suicide hotline, where she tries to offer the hope to go forward to a woman who sees only a bleak tunnel of despair. Ackerman's struggle to open windows and doors of possibility is such a powerful metaphor of the need to find new options in dark political times, I decided to begin the book with it.
The essays I gathered remind us that we don't always know the fruits of our efforts. Even in what seems a losing cause, one person may unknowingly inspire another, and that person yet a third, who goes on to change the world, or at least a small corner of it. Václav Havel's essay was written three years before he and others overthrew the Communist dictatorship in the "Velvet Revolution" of 1989. He describes how the Czech rock band Plastic People of the Universe was first outlawed and arrested because the authorities said their music, influenced by Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground, was "morbid" and had a "negative social impact," a phrase that reminds me of Bush and the Dixie Chicks. Havel organized a defense committee. That in turn evolved into the Charter 77 organization. That set the stage for Czechoslovakia's broader democracy movement.
When Havel and others circulated a petition to free political prisoners, critics mocked them, calling them exhibitionistic and indulgent, and insisting their efforts were futile. Indeed, they initially failed, not freeing one prisoner. But when the prisoners finally got out, they said that knowing others were resisting too gave them the strength to keep on. And those who signed the petition did not stop there. They kept challenging the regime, until they and others finally overthrew it. As Havel writes, "Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart."
History turns in unexpected ways, these voices remind us, particularly when fueled by human courage. The very act of building a citizen movement, whatever its short-term results, can bring hope for the future. And even seemingly miraculous advances are in fact the result of many people taking small steps together over a long time.
Reverend Jim Wallis, of the evangelical social justice magazine Sojourners, calls this "believing in spite of the evidence then watching the evidence change." A story I included of mine, about Rosa Parks, is a prime illustration. We think, because we've been told, that one day Parks stepped onto a bus in Montgomery and single-handedly launched the Civil Rights movement. But by then she had been a civil rights activist for twelve years. The secretary of the local NAACP chapter, she acted not alone but in concert with others. She took training sessions at the labor and civil rights center, the Highlander School, the summer before her arrest. Only because she and others persisted was she able to make history so visibly in that moment on the bus. We know that Rosa Parks's husband Raymond convinced her to attend her first NAACP meeting. But who got him involved? The links in any chain of influence are too complex to trace. But when we act with courage and faith, we create new links of possibility.
Change, these voices remind us, is rarely immediate. But the process of working to achieve it can itself be immensely rewarding. In the words of a wonderful Unitarian minister whose sermons I discovered after a member of our congregation emailed me to praise them, "with our lives we make our answers all the time, to this ravenous, beautiful, mutilated, gorgeous world." The world is both whole and broken. The more deeply we savor it, the more effectively we can fight for justice.
Think of the Billie Holiday lyric and World War II Army Corps of Engineers motto that inspired the book's title: "The difficult I'll do right now. The impossible will take a little while." It's from the song "Crazy He Calls Me," by Carl Sigman and Bob Russell. Sigman, himself a bit of a social activist, wrote it after seeing the phrase on the wall of his barracks. It suggests that if we do our work well, our efforts will not only address critical immediate challenges, like trying to win an election or stop a war, but also build an engaged community for the long haul. Even goals we think might be impossible say, bringing about global justice are no more so than the seemingly unreachable ones of the past, like ending slavery or getting women the vote. They may simply "take a little while." As the voices I've gathered remind us, history isn't some inevitable pendulum. It's contingent on the hope that enables us to act.