Looking around us today, it’s difficult to remember a truth that is both uplifting and heartbreaking: this is not the first time we have been in the midst of a monumental crisis, and it won’t be the last.
The challenge is to not fall into the trap of corrosive cynicism – and to not indulge in the notion that the problems we face today are inherently more dangerous than problems faced by past generations.
It’s easy to look back at history with the cozy advantage of knowing how the story ends. No one in 1863 knew how the U.S. Civil War would end. The British didn’t know in 1940 that the Nazi blitz would ultimately fail. Civil rights activists in 1958 didn’t know how many would die in the pursuit of their goals. No one knew in late October 1962 if the world’s first nuclear war could be averted.
The obstacles before them undoubtedly looked as high and impenetrable as the obstacles blocking our progress look to us today.
The most dangerous thing we can do in this moment is allow ourselves to be filled with the same rage and hatred that we saw on the faces of the neo-Nazis and white supremacists marching through Charlottesville.
Once rage taints us, we cannot be change agents. Rage feels powerful, but it is ultimately a trap.
Having compassion for those who are filled with rage and hatred is not to excuse them or to say they should not face consequences.
Drawing on Christian tradition, both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela warned against allowing the hatred we see in others to taint us. King was quite explicit about this in his November 1957 sermon – we must avoid hate because of what it does to us:
“There’s another reason why you should love your enemies, and that is because hate distorts the personality of the hater. We usually think of what hate does for the individual hated or the individuals hated or the groups hated. But it is even more tragic, it is even more ruinous and injurious to the individual who hates. You begin hating somebody, and you will begin to do irrational things. You can’t see straight when you hate. You can’t walk straight when you hate. You can’t stand upright. Your vision is distorted. There is nothing more tragic than to see an individual whose heart is filled with hate.”
Activist Arno Michaelis of Serve 2 Unite, a Milwaukee-based organization founded to stand against violence and hate in the wake of the 2012 Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin, is a former member of a white power group. He cautions that meeting hate with hate only fulfills extremists’ goals.
“When hateful rhetoric and actions are responded to with more hate – which is exactly what a willful denial of compassion is – the violent extremist mission is accomplished.”
I found great hope in reading about the Exit movement, which is helping people leave far right extremist groups. “Nigel Bromage, co-founder of Exit UK, used to front a violent neo-Nazi organisation and so knows all too well the techniques that recruiters use. “I’ve worked with young people who are simply lost or from fractured homes and looking for love, understanding and compassion. Extremists manipulate these things to get people involved.”
Obviously that kind of work isn’t for everyone, but there’s something each of us can do right where we live.
Exercise your power to make change right where you are. You’ll make a difference, and you’ll save yourself from falling into depression or despair – instead, your actions will be the ultimate expression of hope.
For more on dealing with today’s stressors, check out my Post-Election Stress Kit.