Saturday, March 18, 2023

Moving a Balloon, Moving a Rock: On Patience & Praxis

        My reflections of late have turned back to patience, a reflection that arises again and again out of the personal, relational, structural, and cultural turmoil of the last many years. So many of the issues we face are intractable, with roots as deep as hundreds and thousands of years. And while history reminds me that there have always been people who were there to fight against oppression and insist on humanity’s potential for wisdom and compassion, it also reminds me that human lives have been consistently characterized by injustice and oppression. Our progress is at once remarkable and incomplete, and we carry the urgency of our own brief lives. And so, we also carry both a necessary patience and a necessary impatience, like oil and water in our hearts. 

        Reactivity, that impulsiveness that acts with no time - and sometimes no regard - for wisdom, is the obvious choice of obstacles when it comes to patience. But that has not been my preferred vice when it comes to trying to embody peace and justice in my own life and in community with those around me. I'm fairly slow and steady, and that seems to be a deep habit that isn't changing anytime soon. Instead, I've noticed that the real danger for me when it comes to losing my patience is despair. This makes sense to me. In the face of terrible odds and intractable systemic injustice, some of us lose ourselves in the moment and do something rash that we might regret. Some of us, lose ourselves in the grief and simply begin to fade away. Some of us may do a little of both, shaking our fists as we drown in tears.

        In the past, I conceptualized this kind of impatience as passivity, but I don't personally find that nearly as useful a category of reflection as despair. It's not simple indifference; it's the hollow feeling that threatens to engulf me that is most akin to mourning. And this reflection has also helped me move forward. Reflecting on my experience in this way, I can understand I have a need to grieve and that honoring that need is a radical act in itself.

        As part of these acts of healing, I've inclined my ear again to Elsa Tamez. She wrote that: 
“The situation of oppression and pain tends to make people feel depressed, to dehumanize them, to destroy not only their bodies but also their spirit, to make them see their oppression as normal and natural.” (The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works is Dead, 74)
        These words will be recognizable to anyone who belongs to a marginalized community. We are meant to come to believe that change is not only impossible; it is unnatural. Oppressive systems want us to believe that oppression is the natural order of things, and that this natural order is good. Each of Tamez’ categories plays an important role: depression, dehumanization, destruction of the body and spirit, and the normalization or naturalization of oppression. 

        Reflect on the APA’s list of symptoms of depression, but not only for its psychological impacts, but also its impacts on us as people for change. Depression can often make it difficult for us to sustain social justice movements, including: “Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed”; “Loss of energy or increased fatigue”; “Feeling worthless or guilty”; “Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions”; and “Thoughts of death or suicide”. These mental and emotional states are further exacerbated by dehumanization. As I’ve discussed before
“[I]t is important to notice how dehumanization paves the way for social rejection and social control. Because of the stakes involved, human beings generally don’t want to reject someone they care about. Dehumanization makes it much easier. So whenever we notice dehumanization going on, we should also pay attention to the social rejection that might be coming in its wake. This is why governments have created propaganda that dehumanizes their enemies at war and it is why you hear people like Donald Trump using dehumanizing language to describe the folks that will suffer from his policies. 
“If you can get the public to believe the victims of oppression are somehow less than human, then that public is much more likely to tolerate violent policies. And if you are involved in the oppression, dehumanization makes it easier to live with yourself. After all, you don’t think you are harming actual people. As Brian Resnick put it, ‘Dehumanization is a mental loophole that allows us to dismiss other people’s feelings and experiences. If you think of murder and torture as universally taboo, then dehumanization of the “other” is a psychological loophole that can justify those acts.’”
        This is the destruction of body and spirit that Tamez included next. That is the end goal of dehumanization: exploited, commodified, objectified, cast aside, ridiculed, institutionalized, forgotten, left for dead, or killed. This is why we often have to recite terrifying statistics, share tragic stories, and say the names of those who have suffered. It is both necessary and it takes a toll. It takes a toll because the grief and rage, once perceived and understood, are perceived and understood everywhere, all the time. This is what James Baldwin was speaking to with regard to how racism and white supremacy suffuse every part of our society
“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time … . And part of the rage is this: It isn't only what is happening to you. But it's what's happening all around you and all of the time in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference, indifference of most white people in this country, and their ignorance.” 
        But carrying this grief and rage is also necessary because we are resisting that fourth element, the normalization and naturalization of oppression. Oppression and injustice are normalized in our society to the point of invisibility. This is why people say we are being anti-American by simply telling the truth about history, because violence and oppression - such as the enslavement of African people, displacement and attempted genocide of Indigenous peoples, exploitation of immigrants, and destruction of ecosystems in order to accumulate power and wealth – is built into our history, systems, cultures, and even memories. It is so normalized that we cannot even see that all these social problems people grow up thinking of as normal are actually symptoms of a sick society. Yet resisting this normalization can be unsettling, and the impacts of depression are further intensified both by 1) a lack of resources and access to appropriate medical and mental health care and 2) the continued exposure to injustice. As Vikki Reynolds observed
“We can start to think we might be crazy (depressed, angry, obsessive, defiant, maladapted...) Hopelessness can make us think we can't do anything about injustice. Political awareness can be paralyzing, overwhelming, and spiritually painful. Individualism makes us think we're alone, that no one thinks like us.” 
In response to these four obstacles – depression, dehumanization, destruction of body and spirit, and normalization of injustice, Tamez encouraged us toward a praxis rooted in hope, patience, prayer, and integrity. Two of these especially stand out to me. First, Tamez insists on cultivating "militant patience, that is, of steadfastness, of resistance, of heroic endurance, all the while practicing justice." And, importantly for me, she concludes that those who practice in this way "do not fall into despair, but rather wisely recognize the opportune moments." (The Scandalous Message of James, 74-75) This is an approach to patience that actually works for me, and that I can carry into my days. Patience as resistance folds patience into praxis. Waiting is not passivity, but strategy. We practice justice in whatever ways we can in the conditions we find ourselves in, while we pay attention for those “opportune moments” to act decisively. 

Similarly, Tamez also reframes integrity within the context of praxis, as consistency between what we believe and what we do. This is in resistance to the contradictions within oppressive systems, which compliment themselves for belonging “to the community of faith but show favoritism against the poor, who ought to pay the workers’ salaries but withhold them, who speak ill of others behind their backs, who see others in need but do not come to their material assistance.” (ibid, 75) If we are people who would embody peace and justice, then our integrity must include solidarity. Returning to Vikki Reynolds’ wisdom,
“Our resistance to this political violence, degradation, heartbreak, and terror is to hold each other in sacred and revolutionary love, and to work for justice: that's what solidarity is. Solidarity is belonging.”
This belonging includes uprooting our internalized oppression and dominance and together, patience and solidarity as praxis help us overcome the four obstacles Tamez named. By practicing radical care in community, we normalize relationships, organizations, and cultures that rely on compassion, wisdom, generosity, and mutuality, instead of exploitation, alienation, coercion, and violence. Instead of destroying body and spirit, we normalize healing and growing body and spirit. Instead of dehumanizing one another to cope with or accommodate injustice, we connect with our common humanity and commit to mutual care. And instead of creating conditions where depression, anxiety, rage, and despair characterize our everyday lives, we create conditions where everyone has the opportunity to thrive, and to recognize and access medical and mental health care when we do need it. Because, as Reynolds wrote, “A socially just world is a mentally well world.”

The joining of patience and integrity can also help maximize our impacts. This is both through the making the most of those “opportune moments” and through intentionally aligning our actions with our values. This brought to mind a lesson that Daniel Hunter shared from the 2006–2010 campaign to stop a $650 million casino development in Philadelphia. Rather than focus solely on policies and legislative goals, Casino-Free Philadelphia connected with community members to emphasize the predatory nature of these developments and their detrimental impacts on communities. Hunter described the choice through an image
“Politicians are like a balloon tied to a rock. If we swat at them, they may sway to the left or the right. But, tied down, they can only go so far. Instead of batting at them, we should move the rock: people’s activated social values. When we move the rock, it automatically pulls all the politicians towards us — without having to pressure each one separately.” 
        This analogy can help us develop the resources and skills we need to move the rock, while paying attention to identify those opportune moments to move it. Hunter likened this to being “careful about our yardsticks”
“A lot of the time when we’re talking about politicians it’s about do we get the legislation we want or not; do we get a bill introduced or not; do we get the bill passed or not; and all of those are a politician’s yardsticks. It’s dangerous for us to align ourselves with those yardsticks in terms of identifying whether or not are our movement is winning. At the end of the day I think we can sneak bills through from time to time, but if we build the social context they move much more quickly.”
Building that social context loops us back to our praxis, such as Tamez’ emphasis on patience as resistance and integrity as solidarity. Hunter focused on the contrast between “espoused social values” and “activated social values,” which in turn connects us to community and solidarity. Reflecting on how many people “believe in a bunch of things that they don’t do anything for,” he asks:  
“do people have a hook where they can see how to activate their value? Do they have something that they get to do that allows them to give expression to it, and not only expression but actually to make it happen in some way. … We’re taught so much that our contribution is an individual task – that’s why I think the movement building dimension, community building, is so important. Moving the rock is not an individual thing, it’s a social thing. If we’re seeing the rock individually we remain confused and we’re unable to see the ripple effect of our actions. Seeing ourselves in this social context rather than just as individuals is so important to movement building.” 
        If we want to create social justice movements that can both make a difference and don’t burn themselves out, it is very important that we are strategic about how and where to spend our energy. Insights like those from Elsa Tamez, Vikki Reynolds, Daniel Hunter, and our own communities can help us understand the lasting obstacles to the change we seek, and how we can more intentionally participate in the personal and collective healing and growing we need.