If I were to send a letter to my great-grandchildren, yet to be born, what would be the one idea I’d emphasize, written to them from this era of convulsive foolery and lethal resentment?
I thought a lot about that after Christmas while reading a wonderful book called “Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times,” edited by Carolina de Robertis. I wanted to send a message to my future kin and their friends that they still have a chance to make a better world despite the cruelty and greed, the selfishness and violence of the world they’ve inherited from us.
One of the secret questions of childhood has to be, “How do you make something good out of something bad?” As an old child myself, I think it has to do with a simple formula: The more you resist what you abhor, the more intensely you must support what you think is right.
It’s too easy to confuse anger with action. Anger is not necessarily an impetus for betterment. That seems obvious. But it is a powerful fuel that can be used for good or ill. Filled with indignation, we forget that working to make a better world is ultimately more useful than being an outraged opponent of the one we’ve got. If we’ve learned anything from the Trumpian debacle, it’s that the cultural and social infrastructure of compassion, generosity, inspiring education and respect (for all people and their habitats) is in sad disrepair and needs constant tending and shoring up.
At the beginning of the 21st century we became so distracted by our toys, our pursuit of private happiness and wealth, that many of those who could work for a common good chose to be more furious, and of course more despairing, than serious champions of helping the homeless, let’s say, or healing the planet, or feeding hungry children and giving them an education that liberates their spirits and imaginations. We became more incensed at wrongs than committed to supporting organizations and individuals who work for peace and justice for all people and who struggle to redeem the natural world from the befoulments wrought by the pursuit of profit or social control.
Part of the formula of accelerating commitment along with intensifying resistance is to remember that working to build a more caring and conscientious society is not something one does to advance self-interest. It’s not a matter of personal success or failure. It’s based on another simple formula articulated by political scientist Richard Fox: Everyone does better when everyone does better.
Working strenuously for the world one wants doesn’t take the horror out of the world one opposes, but it does absolve it of devastating hopelessness.
Writing great-grandkids-to-be from the perspective of 2019, I know there’s a good chance that when they’re in school they’ll read about this time in American life and come to consider it a chaotic low point in our history — the economy on a dizzying roller coaster that makes no sense to anyone, politics turning into a gory dog fight to the death, the environment like a melting cooking pan left empty on a flaming burner.
They’ll learn that many of us were worried about the rise of an American kind of fascism, with conformity becoming a prime currency, with surveillance a commodity as common as plastic grocery bags, and with virtually everything in American life soiled by racism, misogyny, gender bigotry and xenophobia so hateful that it literally destroys children in a thinly disguised American version of ethnic cleansing.
But even now, in the middle of this mayhem with no crystal ball to be had, I’d write to tell these unborn kin of mine that American culture does not seem at the moment to be inexorably squeezing the life out of us like a mammoth totalitarian trash compactor. Opposition is still genuine and fierce. Information is still energizing the marketplace of ideas. Electoral politics burst through the barbed wire of voting rights suppression in 2018. “Truth” may be on its last legs, but publishing — the digital kind and the good old paper kind — is countering lies and fabrications with what seems like an avalanche of ingenious points of view and deep-diving journalism. We may be experiencing the unintended censorship of “just too damn much,” but if we can keep agile and alert, the information world is rich with ideas for building a wiser, more humanitarian future.
While advocating that they match the aggressiveness of their resistance with an increased devotion to good works, I’d remind my great-grandkids-to-be of a book published in 2018 by Michiko Kakutani called the “Death of Truth,” which made clear that the forces that thrive off the misery of others are also the consummate masters of deceit and propaganda. And those forces will say anything to dampen the enthusiasm of those devoted to working for the common good. And they will oppose resistance to their greed with every falsehood they can contrive.
William James would have said that the trick is to know how to be wiser than your opposition, which means in part knowing what to overlook — mountains and molehills without end — and knowing what to keep in the keenest focus. The profiteers of the 21st century want nothing more than to confuse us. But as writer and rural champion Wendell Berry reminds us, “the mind that is not baffled is not employed.”
I’d tell my great-grandkids-to-be that being baffled is not being defeated or being lazy minded. Nor is it a way of being thwarted. It’s a first lesson of resistance and of making a commitment. With muddle all around us, we have to start with what we feel is right and with what we feel is wrong even if we don’t know exactly why. If we trust our feelings, they will come to demand reasonable ideas to back them up. Then we have a chance to vanquish our bafflement, fighting our way through the cotton-candy fog of deception and the phony wailing of the banshees of terror until we finally know our own minds and are compelled by conscience, that inner liberty, to follow another simple formula — living a life of yes and no. That is what William James associated with a life worth living, a life of saying yes to compassion and commitment and of saying no to prejudice, violence, fear and cruel indifference.
The way the cosmos works, I’d end my letter to these not-yet-great-grandkids of mine, is that a mean-spirited life is full of hidden pain while a life that says yes to kindness and generosity almost always turns out to be a fine and beautiful way to live.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it