People talk about how tiring it is to fight all the time, how exhausting it is to stay informed and think about what’s going on on the surface and below the surface, how much it hurts to care so much and feel so roundly defeated day after day by human ignorance and cruelty. But I think about people like Nelson Mandela and Pete Seeger and Joan Baez and Noam Chomsky and Harry Belafonte and Angela Davis and Gloria Steinman and others who managed not to get assassinated but have kept up their crusade for social justice well into their 70’s, 80’s and even 90’s. Where do they get their stamina from?
I believe that the energy of soul-force is real and palpable and feeds us from some underground spring. It connects us to a past family of ancestors who stood up and fought and links us to a future generation who depend on us for a worthy and just life to come. It sustains us beyond the short hits of coffee and chocolate and infuses life with a purpose and meaning that begets the necessary energy to build it.
Meanwhile, what I think must be really exhausting is the act of constantly turning your head to “pretend that you just don’t see.” Day after day making up alternative facts, denying anything that challenges your carefully constructed illusion designed to protect you from personal responsibility and accountability and keep blaming your own failures on the scapegoat du jour. Each act of denial tears another hole in the fabric of soul and that’s where that long-haul energy leaks out.
Denial is not new in America. In fact, it has been a part of our national style ever since the Founding Fathers said “All men are created equal” while making out the list of day’s chores for their slaves. It is the go-to default response to any attempt at critique— in my day, it was “Why don’t you go to Russia?!” and today it’s “We’re still the greatest country in the world!” in the face of all facts to the contrary—health care, education, quality of life, quality of food, social justice significantly better in a long list of countries and crime and murder rates much lower in another long list. Oh, but excuse me, did I mention “facts?” Our current denial runs on “alternative facts.” Silly of me to forget.
Back in the 1990’s, poet Robert Bly, along with James Hillman and Michael Meade, put together a remarkable collection of poetry titled “The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart.” In a section titled “Making a Hole in Denial,” Bly wrote:
“It’s possible that the United States has achieved the first consistent culture of denial in the modern world. Denial can be considered as an extension of the naïve person’ inability to face the harsh facts of life.
The health of any nation’s soul depends on the capacity of adults to face the harsh facts of the time. But the covering up of painful emotions inside us and the blocking out of fearful images coming from outside have become in our country the national and private style. We have established, with awesome verve, the animal of denial as the guiding beast of the nation's life. As the rap song has it, ‘Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.’”
And so here we are, the floodwaters of Denial ravaging the land fed by a couple of centuries conveniently ignoring the genocide, enslavement, oppression that made us rich and powerful in the material sense and weak and bankrupt in the moral and spiritual sense. For those still wondering whether to turn up the volume and plug your ears or look ourselves in the eye, feel the pain, grieve and move on, just know that one will exhaust and deplete you and the other fill you with the soul-force that is the source of all energy.