The “Loving People” post from two weeks ago ends with questions about how we navigate our world and if we can do so in more universally loving ways. In that post, I expressed anguish over the hazing death of a Penn State student and the unbelievably cruel, violent, and callous response of the student’s “friends,” or “brothers.” As I write this week’s post, I realize that I can’t stop thinking about that example of cruelty and applying it, in a variety of ways and with more complex social justice concerns, to the murder of Bowie State University student Richard Collins, a black student killed by a white University of Maryland student who is a self-declared white supremacist. I am thinking about the cruelty inherent in Trump’s bombing of Syria as he tucked into dessert at Mar-a-Lago. I am connecting the callousness to the ICE agents in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who ate breakfast at a diner where they subsequently staged a raid. I am worried. I am deeply worried every day about the vertiginous race to the lowest place we can be. (This was probably the wrong week to start watching “The Handmaid’s Tale.”)
When I was little, I worried a lot, as I think many kids do. I worried that my parents would die, that a sibling would fall ill, that a classmate would suffer hardship. When I was eight and my family no longer even flirted with going to church, I had a weird, unindoctrinated, and fervent system of prayer that included a roll call of a lot of people and some obsessively repeated motions. At that age, too, as I recall, I was in an experimental, ‘70’s-style, mixed third and fourth grade class, in which the third graders had the task of teaching material to the fourth graders. I was always worried that “my” fourth-grade charges weren’t learning the material thoroughly enough. I used to write study guides and practice tests and go over them with my classmates, hoping they would be prepared enough for upcoming assignments and tests. When my brother had a slumber party for his birthday, I worried that one of the guests wasn’t involved enough with the group and got him to join the wiffleball game (maybe much against his will, I don’t know). These actions might have resulted from a strange combination of extreme sympathy and a savior complex. I didn’t quite make things up to worry about, but I certainly found them everywhere I went.
Many children let go of obsessive behaviors as they come to understand the shape of their world and to predict outcomes and consequences, and I think I did the same. (Playing basketball all the time probably helped, too.) Other people revealed their thoughts and obsessions, and I realized that living is a more intensely shared enterprise than I had recognized, that we take care of each other through actual administration of care, sympathy, and humor. This was a relief. It allowed for more laughter and company, but didn’t dictate less care of others. There have been many carefree and happy-go-lucky times. That makes me fortunate, I know.
The accordion of emotions, however, continues its expanding and contracting tune. I am really worried again, and my current actions are analogs of the weird prayers, practice tests, and wiffleball politics of my youth. Learning new software programs, figuring out fundraising strategies, meeting with small and large groups every day of the week, speaking and working with other political activists, reading books about it all—this is the job after the “day job.” It’s the extra job of education, protest, and activism that comes from heightened worry, or anguish.
I am worried that in the United States we buy far more guns than books, that we are going to lose our public school teachers in the face of budget cuts and complete lack of support, that we are privileging health care for some over the possibility of health care for all, and that we are sanctifying meanness, cruelty, and violence. I have these constant images of our nation as MASH unit, with the White House staff trying to stay ahead of each new gaffe and cruelty of their leader and much of the rest of the nation tending to people and groups who are bleeding in both all-too-real and metaphorical ways. As an adult, I also want to be attuned to how individuals and groups might want or not want the care offered. This is a delicate balance, one that requires awareness, research, specific goals and actions, and time.
This all means that I, and maybe we, need to gauge the placement and level of worry over the short and long term. I need to figure out how much of the worry to invite in so that I can be a citizen who is aware of the increased limitations and dangers around us, but who is also capable of having clear goals—local, regional, national—and taking smart actions. The murder of black individuals, mortgaging of women’s health and lives, limitation on the movement and autonomy of the LGBTQIA+ community, and raids on hard-working people and families cannot be what defines us, and so changing these trends must be a priority.
The example of tucking into a meal before destroying other human beings cannot serve as a “new normal” in the United States. I am deeply worried.