[Rob Shetterly, the artist who created the Americans Who Tell the Truth website, asked some of the people he painted to respond to this query: “Everywhere I go, kids and adults want to know how you got started. What was the defining moment that triggered your dedication to fighting for justice or peace, or the environment?” Below are my thoughts.]
My transition to political radicalism — going to the root of problems, recognizing that dramatic and fundamental change in the way society is organized is necessary if there is to be a decent human future — involved a lot of pain, in two different ways.
The first concerned the process of coming to know about the pain of the world. I had never been a naïve person who thought the world was a happy place, but like many people who have privilege (in my case, being white, male, a U.S. citizen, and economically secure, though never wealthy) I was able to remain ignorant of the depth of the routine suffering in the world. I was able to ignore how white supremacy, patriarchy, U.S. imperialism, and a predatory capitalist economic system routinely destroy the bodies and spirits of millions of people around the world. When I made a conscious choice to stop ignoring those realities — in my case, when I returned to a university for graduate education with the time to read and study — the process of coming to know about that pain was wrenching. But I found myself wanting to know more.
Why would someone with privilege press to know more about the pain of the world when that knowledge creates tension and emotional turmoil? In my case, coming to understand that the world’s pain is the product of profoundly unjust social systems helped me understand a different kind of personal pain I had been struggling with. Most of my life I had felt like a bit of a freak, like someone out of step with the culture around him. There’s nothing dramatically wrong with me physically or psychologically, but I always struggled to fit in. I had always had a lingering sense that I didn’t want what others around me seemed to want. Because of my privilege, the world offered me a lot, and I am grateful for much of what I have — work I have usually enjoyed, an adequate income, relative safety. But I could never figure out how to be normal — how to kick back with the guys; how to get excited about sports, television, or the latest hit music; how to care about what kind of car I drove. In many ways I had it made, on the surface, but that sense of being out of step always dragged me down.
The best way to deal with our individual struggles is to put them in a larger context. That means both understanding the forces that shape our world as well as placing our problems in perspective. Becoming radicalized politically allowed me to see that I was suffering because I didn’t want to fit into a world shaped by unjust systems; the problem wasn’t my values and desires but the pathology of those systems. That didn’t solve all my personal problems, but it sure helped. Radical politics also helped me understand more clearly how others were suffering much more than I; it shook me out of my self-absorption. Both realizations led me to want to continue the search for more knowledge and understanding about how this all worked, and to commit as much time and energy as I had to movements for social justice.
The paradox is that since I have immersed myself in the pain of the world, I have been able to find new joy. I still understand that the world is not a happy place, and to be truly alive we must face what my friend Jim Koplin calls the “sense of profound grief” that comes with looking honestly at the world. As the writer Wendell Berry has put it, we live on “the human estate of grief and joy.”1 Grief is inevitable, and it is only through an honest embrace of the grief that real joy is possible. The conventional world tries to sell us many pleasures, but it offers us little joy. That’s because the conventional world is also trying to sell us many ways to numb our pain, which keeps us from that grief. So long as we are out of touch with the grief, we are unable to feel the joy. We are left only with the desperate search for pleasure and a panicked scramble to avoid pain.
This process has, for me, been slow and gradual — there have been no epiphanies. I don’t believe in epiphanies, and I don’t trust people who claim to have epiphanies. I don’t think the deep understanding of the world that we strive for can come in a single moment. It comes from the long and painful struggle, with the world and with ourselves. Insight doesn’t magically descend upon us. We have to work for it, and that always takes time.
As the singer/songwriter Eliza Gilkyson (who also happens to be my partner) has put it, “Those are lost who/try to cross through/the sorrow fields too easily.”2 To expand on her metaphor, we cross those fields not in search of a utopia somewhere ahead. Our life is that journey across those fields, facing the grief and celebrating the joy along the way.
- The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996), p. 106 [↩]
- “He Waits for Me,” from the CD Beautiful World, Red House Records, 2008] [↩]