It’s been two years since I put any writing out in public.
Not that I haven’t been writing. I’ve been writing a great deal: working on a new incarnation of a book that I hope is a little bit wiser version of the book I’ve always wanted to write while drafting essays and many wannabe blog posts.
But I haven’t put anything out in public because of other things. Divorce. Seeing my oldest son off to college. The unbelievable changes that have been happening in America since the presidential election. Strings of natural and human disasters, and threats of more. We’ve all been here. And, as a result, I’ve found myself in a different relationship to the theme of much of the writing I’d been doing.
Previously, I wrote a lot about climate change–more specifically, about how those of us who are raising or teaching or in some other way caring for children in this world can best respond to it. It was a theme driven by my own need to find answers, for it felt unconscionable to me, as a Mom, to know what I know about climate change and then carry on as if I didn’t.
Climate change was a theme I’d come to after an earlier chapter of writing about gay rights. When I fell in love with a woman after years of being with men, it had rocked my identity. I found I needed to understand how this prejudice business developed and why. And when we decided to have children together, I felt a soul-deep dedication to do something about it: to try to do my small part to make the world a better place for families like mine.
In time, however, I recognized climate change as ultimately a greater threat to all families than prejudice and inequality, and changed my focus to trying to do my tiny part on this colossal front.
And then came the election. Was the threat to democracy now a greater challenge still, I wondered? That may be an impossible question to answer but it is certainly true that the progress we were finally making on climate change hit a giant new roadblock.
Thankfully, there are avenues other than the political for making progress–and many brilliant and good-hearted people are hard at work doing that, from mayors to businesses to wildly inspiring innovators. But there is no sugarcoating the fact that the last thing we needed to address the climate crisis is the administration and Congress we now have in Washington, D.C.
I felt stumped. And, yes, worse than that.
But then I realized there was something else that was drawing me, a theme that flowed from all these issues and experiences, that has been a lifelong fascination, and that I believe is more than a little relevant today. It is this:
How do we rise to the times we live in and become the best human beings we can be not in spite of but because of the struggles we face?
In The Book of Joy, a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu captured by Douglas Abrams, Tutu describes Nelson Mandela as a “very angry young man, or youngish man” when he went to prison. “He believed firmly that the enemy had to be decimated, and he and his comrades had been found guilty in a travesty of justice. That is the guy who went in, aggressive and angry.”
Twenty-seven years later, the Archbishop continued, “he emerges on the other side as someone of immense magnanimity, because in an extraordinary way his suffering helped him to grow. Where they thought it was going to break him, it helped him.”
Some would have been embittered rather than ennobled, Adams observed.
“Yes, of course, some people it would embitter,” the Archbishop said. But he continued, “One has learned in very many instances, that for us to grow in generosity of spirit we have to undergo in some way or another a diminishing, a frustration.”
Physical strength comes from working against resistance. And, he added, “we grow in kindness when our kindness is tested.”
So how now, in America, do we find our way to that kind of trajectory? I think it requires answering three questions.
- How do we find happiness and meaning, or cultivate compassion and courage, in times of a corrupt and dysfunctional federal government; a new resurgence of prejudice, hatred, and civil conflict; and (in what is apparent to all but those who willfully pretend otherwise) a dramatically changing climate?
- How do we prepare children for the future when we don’t know what it will bring?
- And how do we contribute to positive change in the world as it is right now?
I’m not an expert on any of these subjects. I’m not sure anyone is. But I care deeply about them. And I believe they are questions worth asking.
“The world is changing at such a rapid rate that it’s turning us all into amateurs,” Austin Kleon writes in Show Your Work.
It’s an immensely liberating idea–and a warmly reassuring one, too. Because, in this time of great uncertainty and chaos, it turns us toward each other with a new opportunity to explore: How can we do better than this?