I learned early on in my recovery from addiction that the only thing I can really change is me. I learned later, as I struggled with significant mental health issues, that even changing oneself is an exercise in limitation.
Of course, this doesn’t stop me from attempting to carpet the world instead of putting on some shoes. I live in a fantasy where I am the victim and hero and the “others” are the perpetrators. I am the sensible, tolerant, wise and empathetic force of good. Always. They are the forces of evil, or when I am feeling charitable, fear and ignorance.
By constructing this delusional framework, I forfeit my ability to look inward, while be definition ignoring the places I can affect change. But, it feels so easy and clean when we live in the lie. It feels good to identify ourselves as warriors in a clean battle, where we line up on the side of right and deal with the hateful hordes. Or, we line up, see the odds, and tell ourselves it’s more honorable to try again tomorrow. Lies, each of them.
It used to be that every-other year I’d get my partisan gear on, work for my team, and become a True Believer. These days, I’m sleeping in my armor. I pretend my thirst for justice has a different flavor than my thirst for vengeance. I pretend my participation in a society built on persecution isn’t complicity.
I use my considerable skill at concocting comfortable lies to explain away my hypocrisy, argue my way out of double-standards, and appeal to emotion or logic depending on which better suits me. I do all of this with the certainty that I am right and therefore better than those I disagree with. This is a salve for cognitive dissonance. “Well, at least I don’t believe that Muslims are evil.” A lower bar perhaps does not exist.
The trouble with this line of thinking is that it demands we kill that part of ourselves that we despise in others. If I am to hate Trump and his followers for their ignorance and racism (among a long list of other things), I must either reconcile that inside me which is racist and ignorant, or – and this is far more common – hide from myself that which frightens me. My ability, and the ability of the white liberal in general, to engage in the very same acts that they detest in others is staggering. But, we are on the “right” team, so it is different. So I tell myself.
I tell myself that my happiness, and the happiness of others, is contingent upon our circumstances working out. I buy-in to the blatant, evil lie that worldly gains relieve pain. Or, I assuage my own guilt by declaring all worldly things irrelevant. I am incapable of balance without first reconciling that in me which is screaming to be heard. I don’t want to die, and know I will. I want to protect all those whom I love from pain and death, but know I can’t. I steal the agency of those less fortunate by assuming their inability to find peace in the face of these facts. I steal my own. I assume that our ability to find serenity while experiencing oppression, violence and evil is nonexistent.
I have no right to take away the ability of anyone to transcend suffering. I also have no right to assume that this will occur, or that the transcendence relieves me of my duty to act. I have the right to work fiercely to cultivate within myself a place of authenticity and safety that allows me to face calamity with courage. If others seek that, I will share what little I have learned. I will share that I once yearned for death and found a way to live, and that I have watched many people find a refuge within their pain.
This is the power that has been demonstrated throughout the history of humanity. The appalling amount of violence, racism, misogyny and cruelty in human history is matched by the presence of beauty and resistance in these moments. But, these events did not “happen for a reason.”
People will suffer because of the politics of hate that is rising around the world and in our country. I believe that many will die. Those facts do not preclude me from finding the courage to be in these moments. This is what gives me hope and allows me to have something that no circumstances, no person, no loss can take away. At least that’s what I tell myself when I look inward.
This place of refuge, a stronghold in a threatening world, is the place where my work comes out of. Freeing myself from the swaddles of my comfortable lies shows me my path forward. It rarely looks like I think it will. It isn’t focused on whatever outcome I might achieve. It is focused on what my soul needs and what is right. Using this focus, it’s impossible to lose.