This story is the first in Truthout’s “Visions of 2018” series, in which activist leaders answer the question: “What would you like to see created, built, imagined or begun this year?” Each piece will focus on a bold idea for transformation, to give us fuel as the year moves forward.
“So, the next time I tell you how easily I come out of my skin, don’t try to put me back in
just say here we are together at the window aching for it to all to get better
but knowing as bad as it hurts our hearts may have only just skinned their
knees knowing there is a chance the worst day might still be coming
let me say right now for the record, I’m still gonna be here …
you — you stay here with me, okay?
You stay here with me.”
Just a few years ago, the resounding narrative in our country was “It Gets Better.” This mantra was not just a message to queer youth, but an article of faith in a culture that embraced the notion of eternal progress. This empowering campaign emerged on the scene in 2010, at a time when, for those of us who pay close attention to the climate crisis, it was becoming increasingly clear that things were not, in fact, going to get better. Then in 2017, it became brutally obvious to a broad swath of our society that the march of progress is certainly not inevitable. Perhaps 2018 can be a year in which we embrace that realism and develop a model of leadership rooted in vulnerability.
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The conventional wisdom assumes that in order to motivate people to action or to win elections, leaders have to project optimism about our ability to cure all evils and create a world free of hardship. We see this in both climate organizations and progressive politicians who promise that we can stop climate change and increase long-term economic growth at the same time. Sober analysis tells us that not only are these two goals not possible in combination, but we have almost certainly reached a point where neither goal is possible on its own. But to publicly acknowledge such harsh truths is assumed to be political suicide, immobilizing an audience into hopelessness.
When we deny our pain, doubt and despair, we deny the opportunity for solidarity with others who feel the same thing.
But the thing about realism is that reality is the place where we all actually live. We can cling to painless delusions, but to do so alienates us from the authentic experience of those around us. The poet Andrea Gibson, to whom I sometimes refer as the greatest theologian of the 21st century, says, “What I know about living is that the pain is never just ours.”
When we deny our pain, doubt and despair, we deny the opportunity for solidarity with others who feel the same thing. We end up convinced that we are small, weak and alone. Given the massively powerful forces that must be overcome to address the climate crisis, economic injustice and white supremacy, there is nothing more hopeless than thinking of ourselves as isolated individuals.
2018 provides an opportunity for the emergence of leadership that holds space for our shared vulnerability.
The most talked about climate story of 2017 was an article by David Wallace-Wells entitled “The Uninhabitable Earth.” Wallace-Wells received a great deal of criticism for what some perceived as a pessimistic tone. But the article was the most read piece in the history of the New York Magazine and one of the most read climate articles anywhere, prompting many of us to realize, in Gibson’s words, “Other people feel this too.” For me, it was a moment of sincere hopefulness.
After a year full of shattered illusions, 2018 provides an opportunity for the emergence of leadership that holds space for our shared vulnerability. Rather than trying to make us believe in those illusions again by making false promises and telling people what they think we want to hear, leaders can let go of those illusions and be honest about their limitations and uncertainties. Such leadership is embodied not in one’s ability to control a situation, but in one’s courage to engage with and relate to a situation.
Abandoning the dream of endless economic growth allows for a broader public discourse about what the purpose of an economy should be and who it should serve.
This is a leadership that can emerge this year in the halls of power and in small community gatherings. By holding public space for insecurity, leaders can invite others who feel similarly to experience authentic solidarity, because in that solidarity is our real power. By building that felt sense that we are part of something much bigger and more powerful than our individual selves, perhaps acknowledging that some things are impossible can help expand the realm of what is possible.
If we are liberated from impossible goals this year, we can begin to reconnect with the pursuits that we truly value. Because infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet, the pursuit of economic growth has always demanded sacrifices from other people and other parts of our ecosystem. Abandoning the dream of endless economic growth allows for a broader public discourse about what the purpose of an economy should be and who it should serve.
Unlike abandoning the false god of economic growth, however, the reality of climate change means that we will suffer real losses and hardship. But as with any real loss, denial does not prevent grief; it only makes us lonelier in our grief. Sharing that grief is the only way we can bear it and continue to do the work that needs to be done. There is much work that needs to be done, and in the endless struggle ahead of us, there will continue to be much work to be done. Here in 2018, a time of end-stage capitalism and early-stage climate crisis, we have a heavy load to bear, so let’s hope this is the year of rising leaders who are willing to bear it.