What do we do, now that the age of cynicism is passing?

This article was first published in the Island Word in February, 2009, closely following the inauguration of Barack Obama as the President of the United States.  It’s definitely a time piece; as we re-introduce it, Obama is in his second term and our politically-minded friends can talk all night about whether he has been a hero or a disappointment.  But we include it here because of what it says about staying ready to be inspired, even after repeated disappointments and losses.  We often work with activists who struggle with hope and with depression, and it is a privilege to do so.  Engaging in the wider world is an act of greater courage than we knew when we were just beginning our lives–we didn’t know then that carrying those placards made us emotionally invested in the better world that we hoped to bring about.  Now, we know that surviving as activists is a special art.  This piece is about that art. 

Like much of the world, we have been following the first days of the Barack Obama presidency with more than interest. We argue between us about what it all means.

Serena, the ex-patriot. grew up in a small white town with parents who supported desegregation but had no daily contact with black people, and who wept openly over the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Their idealism, naive as it was of the complexities of living in a culturally and racially diverse community, remains a touchstone for Serena despite its Norman Rockwell simplicity. She aches with the knowledge that Americans, and, indeed all of us, want and need healing from historical injustices.

Nearly one hundred and fifty years after the legal freeing of slaves, the United States has yet to acknowledge its racism, or the contribution of forced African labor, land appropriation, and a mass slaughter of Aboriginal people in the “making of America”. The election of a black man is, against this backdrop, startling. A Canadian might try to imagine an Aboriginal Prime Minister who not only claims his heritage, but also speaks with compassion and honesty about Canadian colonialism and residential schools. Such great leaders do come forward every generation or two, but can we really imagine such a person being elected? This is what has happened in that country to the South of us; the one that we’ve become used to thinking of as rather monstrous in size, influence and temperament. Forty years after the death of Dr. King, and with lynch mobs, “whites only” signs, the back of the bus, and segregated and substandard schools still very much in living memory, the US has elected a Black, articulate, community organizer with a Muslim first and middle name as its president. Who would have thought, even four years ago, that this was possible?

But before Serena can start packing to move back to her beloved Iowa, Monika holds her to a reality check. California voted for Barack Obama, but banned same-sex marriage. The Obama victory was no landslide, and the fear-mongering, Muslim baiting rhetoric of Sara Palin still hit a chord with many voters. The US is so dependent on the military-industrial-prison-and-oil complex that it may not be able to pull free without economic collapse. Shouldn’t we at least wait and see how this turns out before we start weeping happy tears into our Canada Dry Ginger Ale? We have good reasons to be wary, even as we long to embrace that audacious hope that President Obama loves to talk about.

Elder Black people in the American South talk with wonder about the election of Obama, but they are less likely than White pundits to call this victory “a defining moment” of history. One memorable but anonymous fellow on the radio said he’d been working on this campaign since 1932. Most of the people who he had worked with then did not live to see this moment in the sun. People keep naming parents and grandparents who would have loved see it. And still they know that, in Obama’s words, it is time not just to celebrate but to “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and set about the hard work” of setting things right.

OK, we have a Black American president. Check. That leaves restoring the role of a free press, ending torture, closing clandestine prisons, firing the mercenaries of Blackwater, extending full human rights to women and gay people, kicking the Taliban out of Afghanistan, teaching Americans to speak a second language, ending child poverty, installing a sustainable network of non-polluting and carbon free energy production and distribution…and, well, it’s a long list. The Obama victory does not mean that the war—any war—is over. It only means that change is possible.

But the last 8 years have been so hard on activists that the very spirit of hope has been, for many, shelved. To rail against the deep corruption of Bush and his cronies, the indifference of the Campbell government, and the schoolyard bully tactics that have become commonplace in the Canadian Parliament, seemed as hopeless as tilting at windmills. It has seemed that might makes right, and only the biggest, strongest and richest mattered for far too long. It is hard to keep putting out the effort to believe that change is possible. The self-preservative emotional responses are denial, anger or cynicism. Hope in the face of overwhelming odds is truly an expensive habit.

Now, along comes this guy—this skinny Black man with a funny name; and although he doesn’t solve everything, he does show that change can still be won. The next thing we know, we are being asked to have hope, to believe in a future, to join a community and get to work. How dare he?

Well, the truth is, we kind of believe in staying emotionally alive and open-hearted. It is a raw and painful way to live, but it’s also rich and full. Sometimes, like our clients, we skirt along the edges of cynicism. We mind our boundaries carefully. Like all skilled therapists, we avoid placing too much of our own hopes upon changing other people. That would be risky. Also, like all skilled activists over 30, we try not to place too much of our own hopes upon winning specific battles or causes. That, too, would be risky. Our Buddist and Wiccan friends have taught us well to “let go of the immediate outcomes”, and this is a very wise lesson. Still, the ability to throw one’s heart into a political campaign, or to feel in our bones how much we want a client or student to succeed, or to take unashamed delight in a small victory is precious and worth preserving.

This is why Serena cries real tears listening to Barack Obama. It’s because she still loves the country of her birth, and she can feel for the dream of racial equality and healing that recently seemed so impossibly remote that many gave up hoping. It is also because this one victory prompts her to ask what else might be possible, and that question raises more dreams & hopes that could be won or lost in the years to come. There is a sweet vulnerability to these hopes, and it takes courage to sustain them. We expect that courage of ourselves, and of the people that we work with, because this is the alternative to becoming emotionally numb, even dead. Perhaps it is more a leap of faith than the product of empirical research, but we cast our lot with those who believe in staying open to love, pain, joy, grief, and–trite though it may sound at times—audacious hope. To us, that’s good mental health.