Hope in the Dark

It’s easy to grow discouraged in this life. Adversity—whether it’s an illness or failing health, economic stress, loneliness or isolation—or in Mary and my case, losing Mark suddenly and tragically: elements like these can grind even the strongest person down, and make them want to give up.

The case can also be made forcefully that the charge that many of us were given when we were young that life in America would be better for us than previous generations is no longer a reality for most. We’ve just elected a president who is at best, a boorish and self-centered man unlike anyone who has sat in the oval office prior. Some believe however, that our current president is an authoritarian with designs on dismantling what remains of our nation’s functionality and crumbling civic and physical infrastructure.

Peggy Noonan, someone with legitimate Republican bona fides calls Mr. Trump, “Woody Allen without the humor” in an op-ed written for and published in the Wall Street Journal. She paints him as a pathetic and weak little man. She’s probably right, although don’t understimate the damage possible by “weak little men.” It’s also far too easy to locate our reasons for despair in one man or a devastating life event.

In the midst of walking a personal path buffeted by discouragement and sadness, I’ve noted how many others are dealing with their own dark journey. In my own grief, I’ve recognized this collective sense of loss all around.  So fellow travelers, why so sad?

Rebecca Solnit is an American writer and activist. She’s been engaged in environmental and human rights campaigns since the 1980s. Her writing is informed by a life lived with boots firmly planted in real life and direct action work, not academic posturing. Maybe that’s why her book, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, has made such a strong impression on me over the past two weeks as I made my way through it.

Hope in the Dark isn’t a new book. Solnit wrote it in 2004, while she was dealing with her own discouragement living through the reality of four more years of a George Bush presidency and war looming in Iraq. The edition I am reading was updated in 2015, with a new foreword, taking us into the second term of President Obama.

Let me assure the most cynical of you out there that Solnit isn’t positing some Pollyanna-ish pap or pushing pseudo-spiritual babble. She also recognizes that our “opponents would love you to believe that it’s hopeless, that you have no power, that there’s no reason to act, that you can’t win.” If there’s anything that the Trump administration is good at, it’s communications subterfuge. I believe that much of the “smoke and mirrors” activity swirling around the president and his tweets that most of the mainstream media is fixated on is designed to get the rest of us to look away from where he’s really going. Keep in mind, he is first and foremost an authoritarian. Do some research on prior authoritarian leaders. You might have to visit a library, although you can sit at home in your darkened bedroom and Google “authoritarian leaders” if you must. But back to hope.

Mark was committed to environmental causes. His final walk was first and foremost about raising awareness about the dire consequences relative to climate change and how one of our defining issues will affect us all. Others have been sounding alarms about it, also.

Recently, David Wallace-Wells wrote one of the most dispiriting pieces about climate change I’ve ever read. Actually, I never made it through the entire article. One thing I’m learning in my current state is that I can only handle a finite amount of negativity. Wallace-Wells intentions might be noble, but man, his article was a major buzzkill.

I’ve spent more hours than I care to count wallowing in a worldview that tends towards the dystopian. There are plenty of corners of the interwebs where you can seek out doomers and those trumpeting “the end of the world as we know it” narratives. Have at them if you like.

Simply processing grief and loss and figuring out how to piece together a life forever altered consumes the lion’s share of my energy. Mary and I have both commented how physically (and mentally) we’ve been affected by grief’s various stages over the past six months.

The problem I have with articles like the one I mention is that they leave readers fatigued and so discouraged that most people will simply wring their hands and think, “what’s the use?”

One of the primary reasons I decided to give plant-based veganism a try was Mark’s reminder that not eating meat was the single, most effective thing any one individual can do to limit their impact on the planet. I’m glad I decided to go down that road. Not only did Mark get to share this epiphany with his dad, we got to discuss plant-based eating over his time out walking, prior to his death. He would answer my questions and I treasured our conversations via email or on the phone. I’m sad that we never got to have him home so we could prepare a feast worthy of a vegan superhero like Mark.

This week, a high school classmate posted photos and updates on Facebook from a protest she attended in Lewiston. She was out raising concerns about the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare), and the fallout for upwards of 30 million Americans who would likely lose access to affordable healthcare.

My classmate isn’t a hardened activist or someone who I think about when conjuring up visions of “taking it to the streets.” However, she was out there, sign in hand—even being hassled by a local jerk (I mean business owner), for “making too much noise” outside his call center on Lisbon Street. I’m proud of you, Sue. Your tangible efforts dovetail nicely with my own attempt to hold onto hope, the kind of hope that Solnit writes about and the stories and examples she lays out for all of us to emulate.

Back in 2004, I was sitting in a cubicle, working for a disability insurer that I’ve referred to as Moscow Mutual. They are a leader in their field. My job required sitting in a cubicle for eight hours a day, five days a week. It was a soul-killing endeavor. I eventually left to pursue writing, full-time.

Mark Baumer protesting cluster bomb manufacturing, Textron World Headquarters/Providence, RI (Steve Ahlquist photo)

During this period of despair, I joined up with a group of local activists in Portland, many of them with anarchist tendencies. Don’t be scared by that word—it literally means no government—not in the faux populist/Tea Partying manner that right-wing propagandists talk about, but in the best sense of the word: a society free of authoritarian and state oppression. I learned firsthand about direct action work. Maybe that’s why I could identify with Mark’s own political activity, including his protest and arrest in front of Textron’s global headquarters. I was never arrested, but I could have been several times.

My point is that in 2004, I turned to action and activity to quell my discouragement and sense that things were hopeless. While my activism then didn’t change the world, it did help me to recognize the importance of getting off my ass and putting my feet literally on the ground, rather than simply bitching about the issues at-hand. I’m guessing that my classmate, Sue, feels more hopeful today knowing that she is working to be part of the solution through active engagement. Thank you for your example and reminding me of this.

There is this thing that goes on in America where we reduce everything down to a black and white, binary construct. Issues become an us vs. them exercise and we reduce our opponents down to what they believe. Sometimes this becomes a source of pride–I’m better and smarter than you, cynics add fuel to the fire of despair, causing people to simply give up.

We all have the power to make small changes. These initial “baby steps” lead to subtle changes. Maybe the most profound changes start with us. Over time, these steps begin to gain traction and changes lead to something larger and more significant.

Mark was a hopeful person. He’d rarely allow me to sink too low without offering something to consider, or simply acknowledge how I felt and then suggest an activity designed to restore some hopefulness. I’m drawing on his legacy today.

Much of my recent blogging has been an homage to Mark’s admonition to me to simply write more often, even if it was some observation or daily activity that I decided to comment on. I will try to follow his lead on that.

Let me encourage you to look for something small but hopeful today, and be about it. Then, try to get up tomorrow and do it again. If you can’t muster the energy or courage tomorrow, maybe the day after. At some point, if you keep taking small steps, you’ll gain some momentum.

Our enemies don’t want that. In fact, they’re doing everything in their power to keep you on the sidelines. Because they know that if the American people ever mobilized en masse, they’d be done for.

Oh, and can I encourage you today (or this weekend) to go down to your local, independently-owned bookstore and seek out Solnit’s book? The book I’ve been reading is a library book. I want her book on my bookshelf. I know it’s the kind of book I’ll continually come back to. I’ll be going over to Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick to pick up my own personal copy. If your bookstore doesn’t have it, have them order it through it. Stay away from Amazon on this one, please.