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The Danger of Slipping Into a Restless Helplessness

I was out for a walk with my baby, trying to defeat her valiant nap resistance with the comforting bumps of the sidewalk in our neighborhood, when my husband texted me a tweet from Rachel Maddow:

My heart leapt for brief moment, and then it sunk even lower than it had been before the text arrived. Could this sense of momentum be trusted? Would having the much-discussed tax returns actually lead to any real consequences? Dare I be hopeful this would matter?

I kept strolling. Eventually my baby gave up and fell asleep, her huge, fuzzy head tilted in what looked like a very uncomfortable position.

Eight weeks into Donald Trump’s presidency, I’m feeling a little like my baby — bumped along by the ups and downs of the daily (no, hourly) news, and my husband’s insistence on keeping me apprised of it. I’m not in danger of falling asleep, exactly — too scared for that — but I do feel in danger of slipping into a kind of restless helplessness.

I’m paying less attention to the news, exhausted by a sense that I don’t know what to actually spend my limited time and energy on. I’m confused about how to calibrate my expectations at this point. I remain curious about how this country could have nominated him in the first place, and therefore interested in having conversations with people who voted for him. Yet, my passion for those conversations is leaking out of me like an old balloon.

There are people (and a planet) in danger. I can’t let the droning relentlessness of our politics fool me otherwise. I sat at my kitchen table this week with a friend whose son is an undocumented immigrant (she has recently gotten citizenship) and talked about what a daily stress it is to feel like he could be detained at any moment for anything. People will suffer because of this administration. People will die because of this administration. And that is not to mention the spiritual carnage of this nation as a whole.

I must not fall asleep. I can’t. There is too much at stake.

So how do those of us who oppose this administration process all this information? How do we figure out where to put our limited energy and money? How do we sustain the resistance?

Some lessons:

1. Pass the baton.

My friend told me the most beautiful story about when she and her family were at the San Francisco airport protests following the first Muslim ban. Her three-year-old had been a trooper for hours — plied with snacks and wowed by the energy of it all — but was finally starting to fade, so she and her husband decided to head home. She said that as they were heading up the escalator, another family was simultaneously heading down. As they floated by one another, she had this palpable sense of passing the baton to them. It was such a good and necessary feeling. We must show up, and when we need to go home (whether literally or emotionally), someone else will be ready to jump in. We have to trust this.

2. Gather with your people.

Gather with the people you love, the people who live in your neighborhood, who constitute your circle of friends and neighbors, and care for one another. Feed one another. Laugh together. Be real together.

I have been so moved by what seems like an unprecedented number of gatherings that people are hosting following Trump’s election — Indivisible and Swing Left house parties, the Art and Activism workshop that an artist friend of mine has at her house each Friday afternoon, family-oriented potlucks with cards to policymakers strewn about along with the teething biscuits and the sippy cups, a brunch for white women to think about our own role in this moment… the list goes on and on. If you haven’t been pulled into these settings by the tide of the times, host one yourself.

3. Take the long view.

Of course we will need some small wins along the way if we are going to keep our chins up. We need proof that we are powerful, that what we do has consequences in the world. The image of all of those lawyers sitting on the floors of airports across the country with their laptops open, hammering out suits has been succor to me on more than one occasion. When the ACLU got the initial stay on the Muslim ban, I felt elated and deeply reassured. But even that relatively small win was the result of a much longer game. We must remember that this is not only about March 2017. It is about March 2117, too. Historian Beverly Gage reminds us:

“Some of the most significant shifts in modern American law and political culture came out of efforts birthed in panic and despair. During World War I, for instance, the United States banned criticism of the government, interned thousands of German Americans and instituted widespread surveillance of immigrants and political radicals. Many Americans supported these policies; others feared that the country was abandoning cherished traditions of tolerance and free speech. In response, a small group of alarmed progressives founded an organization that came to be known as the American Civil Liberties Union. They lost many early courtroom battles, but their vision of a nation in which ‘civil liberties’ were taken seriously eventually changed the face of American law and politics.”

I am going to be mothering this little baby a long time. Today, I’m trying to get her to nap. Tomorrow, I’ll try to get her to nap again. And the day after that. And the day after that. Playing some meaningful role in the evolution of our country is no less relentless, at times maddening and unrewarding, and at times profoundly beautiful. We must stick with it. We must resist. We’ve got no other choice and few more important privileges.

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