October 17, 2010 by panicpony
Once my mother asked me, “How can you sleep at night with all those serious, sad thoughts about the world in your head?”
I replied, “How can YOU sleep at night being totally oblivious and ignorant to all the horrible things in the world?”
We both burst out laughing because I had been completely kidding and mostly making fun of myself. And my mother is one of the most aware, sensitive people I know.
But, I ask myself that same question about so many people in the world.
These are the kind of questions that get us nowhere. These are the kinds of questions that people ask and the answers are so immense and impossible that we just stop right there with the asking and never get around to doing. Or we think the asking IS the doing.
I actually sleep a lot better than I ever did, since I have realized that all the assholes in the world sleep just fine, that horrible things happen to people and people do horrible things to each other and terrible tragedies can occur and there is just nothing I can do about a lot of it. I think the answer a lot of people have found who want to be helpers in this world is that even when we can’t do much, we do it anyway. If we change the angle from which we approach people and issues, come at it from the back and focus on what can we do right here and now, we actually offer a kind of individual power to those we want to give to, and to ourselves.
Individual power is an amazing thing. If the idea behind social work is to empower the individual, I think we forget this way too often. I think that as a rule about half of our country is in love with the idea of giving and helping and the other half is in love with taking that help away. The irony is a happy medium is what we are searching for. Those with inherent privilege (generalization alert) are trying to answer the big questions by piling money on it while those who have actually pulled themselves up by their bootstraps are holding on so tightly to those boots they don’t have a hand to hold out to someone who may want to do the same. The reality is helping is all about finding individual power, and then giving others the opportunity to do that as well. When we have that power, we can answer our own questions: how did I end up in whatever position I am? How can I get out of it? And we come to understand that although we are powerless against certain tragedies and takers in this world, the simple measures we can take as individuals may just give some opportunities anyway.
Does any of this make sense? I am trying to articulate the process I’ve had to go through in order to make it not just on my own, as a little lady fighting against all odds (um, did I just write that?!) but as someone who is dedicated and desperate to make the world better for people one person at a time, one way at a time. There are always going to be assholes, disasters, diseases, corporations, guns, wars, etc in this world. We carry signs, we use big words with each other, we cry over the enormity of it all. I’m done with all that. The only way I can survive all this is to give one person one bed to sleep in, one hungry neighbor one baked potato, one fellow woman a tool towards self-realization that will help her stand up for herself in her bed and in her home. And these are things that have been given to me too. These little steps forward are all we really have. You can’t walk before you can run and I won’t survive in my chosen life and profession if I am stumbling over my own feet.
I am really excited and inspired by two recent examples of what I call turning reality into activism. All of Us (you can stream in on Netflix) is a documentary about a young Ethiopian American doctor who tries to answer a huge question by asking some small ones of just a few other women. What a bright light bulb turned on in my head after watching this. While exploring why the majority of new AIDS cases in the US are comprised of black women, she goes into a few simple dynamics of two of these women’s pasts, the power in their relationships, their economic dependence, the control they feel they have in their own lives. Obviously it’s not that simple, but I was amazed how Dr. Mehret Mandefro was able to enter into these women’s lives and approach their deepest conflicts with just a few phrases and thoughts. The outcome is both tragic and inspiring, but ultimately both the women she focused on came to huge realizations about the path that had led them to AIDS. What struck me was while the risk factors they contemplated were seemingly obvious, no one seemed to have thought of it before. Or if they did, they never gave these women enough credit to ask how these factors had determined their fate. The questions I came away with were, Why the hell not? And how can I use this as a lesson in my own work?
And there is the new book Do It Anyway, by Courtney E. Martin, who profiles several young activists who became such out of necessity, which is, in my opinion, creates the most powerful change.
If we don’t find these amazing examples of translating what are often just semi-workable theories into workable languages than we are lost. If we don’t follow their examples than we may as well throw in the towel and get back to the land of social services paperwork and holding up signs that remind people that things are fucked and it’s so so sad but what can we do about it?
It’s a Sunday morning, I have a few precious hours of my own before I go back to having none, and this is what I am thinking about. This is my life and my choice. If I want to get up, get dressed, and go look the world in its face, today I have to keep saying over to myself, “Do it anyway, do it anyway, do it anyway.” As cheesy and simplistic as that sounds, it’s all I got.