“Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love.”
-Hamilton Wright Mabie
Except not this year. After countless instances of terrorism and victories all over the world for fear, cynicism, and xenophobia, the traditional end of year holidays seem slightly off. 2016 shocked us fundamentally as a global community by challenging our institutions, testing our resolve, and throwing into question the certainty of a healthy, prosperous future for us all. We must confront ideas and definitions of universal love and predetermined happiness that are dangerous in their forgetting of those on the margins. However, we must not lose a spirit of hope and compassion for our fellow kind.
I spent this holiday season in Europe on my first winter break of grad school. Many places I visited were not new to me, and I had a lot of fun. Memories of friends and food are incredible: buzzing tapas crawls in Madrid, salty anchovies and fizzy txakoli in San Sebastián, funky, runny cheese and rich chocolate in Paris. However, I couldn’t escape the dulled holiday spirit that lingered in the air and felt somewhat disgusted at myself for reading news about massacres in Aleppo in the morning and then living the good life at night. Following the Berlin tragedy there was heightened security everywhere: police searching a 30 minutes bus ride to the Biarritz airport, and soldiers with machine guns guarding the Paris metro. Swaying in the sea of tourists gawking at the Eiffel Tower, I couldn’t help but think to myself that despite knowing the slim likelihood of a terrorist attack occurring, I was very, very afraid.
In his powerful series of interviews with President Obama and a brilliant yet unnerving article in the Atlantic (My President Was Black), Ta-Nehisi Coates draws a line between himself and the President, saying that what separates the two (aside from the obvious) is the belief that everything will work out in the end. He cites both religion (or his lack thereof) and life experience as the reason for this difference in thought. In a podcast with Ezra Klein, Coates states his skepticism with the prime example of the Obama hope worldview, “the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice”, saying that the arc really only works for some. His magnum opus, Between the World and Me, details how growing up in inner city Baltimore as a black man showed him two separate worlds: a just one that he was told existed and the deeply unequal one that he lived in. His painstakingly simple and prescient observations of American history and inequality have for me thrown into question whether to believe in Obama’s eternal hope for the future.
Many, myself included, might feel surprised, disheartened, even afraid to think that his words might have credence, that things might actually not work out. As a white, middle class, American male my life has up to this point and will most likely always work out, but that is not the point. In a time where upheaval is commonplace and we are finally starting to question uncomfortable truths about our history and our society, it is time to take a more realistic perspective. However, do we throw away all notions of hope on the basis that they have no empirical evidence? I think we need to reconcile the realities of today with the prospects of a better future.
As I walked down the left bank of the Seine, freezing in a stiff late December wind, thoughts and emotions bounced around inside me. I looked up at the steel grandiose of the Eiffel Tower and imagined it exploding and crumbling to the ground. I thought of the men in both Europe and the Middle East who would plan and carry out such an attack, and wondered how the world has sown the capability for a hatred so destructive and powerful. I felt horror and heartache for the millions of refugees around the world, as well as countless more who have not survived wars of ideology and policy and the ravages of disease, malnourishment, and climate change. I felt remorse and resignation thinking about the millions of people in my own country who are openly and subconsciously oppressed, discriminated against, and are promised an American Dream that is as tainted as the idea of a compassionate Donald Trump.
There is no doubt that we must listen to Ta-Nehisi Coates and consider the possibility that everything will not work out, when for millions of people in the world it just doesn’t. However, my spirit inside tells me that we must strive towards hope and imagine a better future. Whether it is with a God or not, American or European or Asian or African, towards nature or animals or prophecies or family, we must adhere to the idea of a communal mankind. As Coates rightly points out, history is a continual story of the success of the majority with little attention paid to the costs paid to achieve it. I am led to believe that through trying to understand all viewpoints and doing our best to spread love and compassion, we can try and make the world a better place for all.
In the Atlantic article, Obama also says, “What can happen, I think, is for us to act in ways that show mutual regard, propose policies that safeguard against obvious discrimination, extend ourselves in our personal lives and in our political lives in ways that lead us to see the other person as a human worthy of respect. It’s what we do more than what we say, I ultimately think, that saves us.” As the days fall away until the inauguration of Trump we mustn’t lose sight of realities, but need to channel our inner Obamas in 2017 and beyond to be the best we can be and fight for what we know is right.