Enough Is Enough
This week, we are exploring what it means to let go. When I envisioned this column, I thought I would write about what happens when we cling to ideas, people, objects, and resentments the way we cling to addictions. I thought I would share some stories from my work as a chaplain that showed the tragedy of letting go, and the gifts.
Then George Floyd was killed and protests erupted around the country. I thought about what it means to be white in America, how we are not directly affected by the abuse, murder, slavery, incarceration, and other traumas that have beset black Americans for hundreds of years. So it’s easy for us to cling to our illusions and privileges because they make us feel safe and comfortable. Like most people, we fear loss, change, and uncomfortable truths. Yet the video of Floyd’s death has forced many unbelievers to acknowledge that the police are not always in the right. It is dangerous simply to exist as a black person in the United States.
Yet though we agree there should be change, some of us still want to see the marches stay peaceful and the protests be polite. Sure, damaging property is wrong. Threatening others is wrong. And it’s not as if there’s been no change at all. Things are better than they were a hundred years ago, at least in some ways.
Nonetheless, at a certain point, a person just can’t stand it anymore. In an interview with a CNN reporter, George Floyd’s brother said, “I don’t understand. What more we got to go through in life?” At some point, a person says, “No more. Enough.”
Holding onto Dignity
Black people have been oppressed for too long. Over and over, their bodies have been trashed, their lives violated, their cries of despair and desperation ignored. Yes, when terrible things happen, white voices rise up in sympathy for a while, but nothing changes. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his letter from the Birmingham Jail, “We know from painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”  We don’t give up our power willingly. It’s the way we humans are.
So black people continue to die simply because they exist. How can we expect there to be no violence? Rage and heartbreak must have some outlet. They cannot be stuffed inside forever. We shouldn’t be surprised that the oppressed are making demands. No one should have to relinquish his dignity to survive.
So maybe there are some things we humans should not let go of, things we should instead hold onto. For instance, we need to hold onto a vision of justice. Ever since the United States became an entity, we have been battling about what justice is and who deserves it. But a justice that is true is founded on dignity for every person and faith in our essential goodness. Everyone, no matter the color of his skin, deserves the right to a job that can support a family. She deserves effective, compassionate, and affordable health care. Every person should have enough to eat, be free to pursue her dreams, to walk the streets in safety, to be respected and cared for and given reason to hope in a better future.
Things to Let Go Of
On the other hand, there are some things we white folk do need to let go of: our illusions, our myths, our stories of superiority. We don’t understand what it’s like to be targeted because of the color of our skin, so we need to listen to those who do. Racist attitudes influence us, even if only in subtle ways, and we need to face that reality. One clue is that if we find ourselves getting defensive, there’s probably some discomfort inside us we need to examine.
My first patient visit at the hospital this morning was with a woman who had just learned about George Floyd’s murder. Though she was white, her son was black, and she feared for his life. This fear wasn’t new for her, but the recent events made it prominent in her mind. She was having trouble concentrating. She wondered what she could do to help create a world in which her son could thrive. Was there a magic spell she could recite, some prayer she could make, a way to influence lawmakers, or some potion that would transform our country into a land of true freedom, justice, and equity for all?
Mothers all over the land are mourning. Does that count for nothing?
The Future Is Uncertain
I don’t know what will come of this uprising. Somehow, it feels different from past protests against police brutality. Perhaps it’s because the coronavirus has revealed how broken our systems are, has made clear the inequities that penalize those who are poor and marginalized. Corruption festers within all three branches of our government. Our nerves are frayed. We’re isolated, lonely, and scared. Suffering overwhelms us. We can take no more. Something has to give.
At such a time as this, there will be a lot of letting go. Already, we have had to let go of our fantasies of invincibility. Nature has always been, and always will be, stronger than we are.
We have also had to let go of our belief that those things that happen to black people are somehow their fault. So many black deaths to the virus; so many black deaths to violence. Our system is filled with inequities, both purposeful and accidental. Everywhere, there is resentment and fear. If we must let go of something, I vote for letting go of these: the oppressive laws, the festering hatred, the contempt and ridicule and violence. I pray it is not freedom, truth, and fairness that we give up.
Probably things won’t turn out that bad. I don’t expect a Utopia, but if the present unfolds as history has, we will eventually be all right.
The Arc of History
In his book Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars, Stephen Prothero explores the history of our nation from the moment George Washington became our first president. He tells stories of more violent culture wars than the ones we find ourselves in today, of political feuds at least as vitriolic as our current ones.
The culture wars, he explains, are struggles between conservatives who want to hold onto what they have, some idea of virtue or status or religious righteousness. For them, hierarchies matter. Men should be the head of the family; whites should rule over blacks. The strong should be in charge, and the weak should defer to their betters. They believe in one true god, and they know who he is.
Yet the views of society shift and change with time. It’s a natural evolution. Change comes from within, such as when printing press was invented or the internet allowed anyone to publish, regardless of the quality or validity of their words. It comes from outside, as well, as when immigrants move into our neighborhoods and work beside us.
As these changes become the norm, conservatives grow uneasy. “What liberals see as progress,” Prothero writes, “they see as loss.”  Conservatives see their way of life fading away, and they get scared, so they fight back. Over our entire history, those fights have been violent. Yes, conservatives have become adept at using all three branches of the government to solidify their power and disenfranchise the poor and the colored. They terrorize those who dare to defy them. Whatever it takes to win, they will do.
However, as Prothero studied trends throughout our nation’s existence, he discovered that conservatives tend to rise up in arms against lost causes. For instance, they persecuted Catholics and Mormons, fruitlessly established Prohibition, fought against the Civil Rights Movement. Yet every time, the liberal values of acceptance and change prevailed. In the end, the liberals won.
Building a World Rooted in Love
Today, again, there’s a lot of push back from conservatives. They cling to the past and long for a return to the 1950s, those years that felt so golden to them. To hold onto their illusion of supremacy, white conservatives will do anything. It’s a scary time.
But we’ve been through scary times before. We can get through these, as well. And if we can let go of our illusions, our fears, our hatred, and our bitterness, we will get there sooner, with less violence, and with more grace. Letting go is an important skill. When we grasp for that which is impermanent and cling to lies, not only do we suffer, but so does everyone around us.
But letting go is not always the answer. Sometimes we have to hold on. For instance, we have to hold onto truth, justice, freedom, and compassion. We have to hold onto a vision of peace, generosity, and love. We can build a world rooted in fear, insecurity, resentment, and tribalism, but we don’t have to. Instead, we can demand justice and build a world rooted in love.
No matter what happens, it will not be easy. To create a just and safe world for everyone, some of us will have to let go of things we value. But life is full of change and loss. Every day, we’re invited to let some things go. If we open our hands and release what we cling to, we may find we are happier than before.
Even so, letting go is not always best. Sometimes we need to hold on. So hold onto truth; hold onto hope; hold onto faith. Demand freedom; demand human dignity. The arc of history does bend toward justice. Together, we can get there.
In faith and fondness,
- King, Martin Luther, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” August 1963, 2, https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Letter_Birmingham_Jail.pdf, accessed May 30, 2020.
- Prothero, Stephen, Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections), New York: HarperOne, 2016, 13.
Photo by Максим Степаненко on Unsplash
Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved