Tragedy & Choice

Content Warning: Everything going on right now.

On January 31, 2021, I wrote an essay entitled “5 Years Ago in Reno” in which I reminisced about my second-ever union organizing drive. In that essay, I explained that at one point during that campaign, helping the workers at a small rehab hospital in North Bay win their union, I worked “28 straight 14-hour days.” I wrote that I had “never worked so hard in my life” and that “a week prior [to my 28 14-hour-a-day sprint], I had crashed my car in pure exhaustion, falling drowsy at the wheel.” I wrote, “I was 22 at the time, and my dedication to organizing could only accurately be described as ‘manic’… in a deeply, deeply unhealthy way. But in the fanaticism of a dude in his early-twenties totalizingly enraged at the world, I not-so-secretly enjoyed the toll the campaign was taking on my mental and physical health.”

I concluded the narrative portion of that essay writing, “I don’t know if I have a point to this [essay]. But I look back extremely fondly at those early years of my organizing career — mad though those years may have been, the world just seemed so much simpler back then. I feel that I don’t understand much of the world nowadays, and I think my confusion at today’s world is just as much the complexity of me getting older as it is that the world has just gotten way more crazy.”

I confess that this sentiment of feeling lost in this world — this sentiment I wrote about on January 31st, 2021 — has only gotten deeper and more amplified for me today, on this day a quarter-way through 2022. I don’t know that I exactly yearn to relive the particular campaign life I was living in January 2016. But I certainly remember feeling much less fractured as a human being. Back then, I had grand theories about the world. I had an almost religious level of sincerity with regards to these grand theories and to my union organizing practice. I knew where I belonged — in my organizing, sure, but also on a deeper spiritual level.

***

The official statistics are likely an undercount — likely, more than a million people have died of COVID-19 in the United States. Many, many more people will have permanent life-changing health maladies because of the pandemic. And despite the fact of this — and coming out of this pandemic — there is still a large portion of the United States who either don’t believe the pandemic is real or who don’t feel that a collective response to all the death and loss of human potential was warranted, and so opted not to change anything about their lives in the last two years. And so opted to contribute to even more death and suffering. And so created the social situation where there has been extremely minimal collective, public acknowledgement of all the Death. Abroad, we are now learning of the war crimes — mass murder of Ukrainians, mass rape, mass torture, etc. — being committed by the Russian military. And at the beginning of this week, here at home, we awoke a few days ago to learn about a mass shooting in Downtown Sacramento, leaving 6 dead and 12 injured.

Horrors like these have been occurring all my life and way before my existence — for example, the United States military has also overthrown governments and committed mass crimes against humanity against innocent foreign peoples. What’s shocking is that, and I sit here reflecting as I type this — there used to be a large part of me, the Ian that existed in January 2016, manically trying to save a union organizing drive, who genuinely believed in “education.” This idea that if people “just knew” — if the public consciousness was aware of all the Horrors, for example, of the United States military, or if the public consciousness could more consciously feel their exploitation as workers — that humanity would lift itself up. As I sit here typing and reflecting — while the Horrors of everything I’ve mentioned have indeed become lifted up as common knowledge, feeling, and parlance, perhaps this present fate is much, much worse. It is no longer a debate whether things are messed up. Even the most privileged of us know. Many of us just don’t care.

***

Here’s a thought experiment.

You can imagine two different states of being. In the first state of being, you can strive to understand the structures of the world, and with every passing day and week come to learn a deeper and closer understanding of these structures. And with this deepening knowledge, one can choose to manipulate those structures to get what you want out of the world — twisting the structures of the world for yourself. In the second state of being, you can choose to strive to understand yourself in relation to the world. You can strive to remove that which is inauthentic to yourself, and you can choose to express yourself as authentically as possible to the world, independent and practically unconcerned of the outcomes of your authentic expression, and thereby have faith that wherever your authentic expression, connection, and relating to the world takes you is where you’re supposed to be — and be at peace with that.

This second state of being is hard. Perhaps it is among the hardest of things. It means equating yourself as fundamentally equal to that of others — not only as a validation of yourself as a full individual who finds themselves through a collective, but a validation of others as full, complete individuals who find themselves through the same collective. It is total, complete respect for yourself and others. (To use philosophical parlance, it is — in a sense — Kantian.)

We all know that people engage in bad-faith, manipulative communication — the first state of being.

So, here’s the thought experiment: imagine a world in which everyone made the second choice — to let go and to allow others to affect them as equally as they affect others, all in honest, good-faith, collaborative communication. In this world, firstly: do you believe you would be at peace? Secondly, and much more broadly: do you believe that humanity would be able to be at peace? Would this state of humanity even be desirable?

If taken seriously, I believe these are challenging questions that require struggle to honestly, sincerely work through.

I like this thought experiment because what the thought experiment really reveals is something much deeper: do you fundamentally believe that humanity — as it is, completely and honestly — is enough? Or, to use a Shakespearean phrase popularized by young adult author John Green, do you believe that there is a fault in our stars?

I confess that today I am struggling with my answer.

Yesterday night, I attended what was supposed to be a vigil for the mass shooting; the thing that struck me very immediately, and throughout the entire series of proceeding events, was that there was no vigil. There were almost just as many news people and amateur photographers as there were actual attendees, desperately trying to take from those mourning, like a monster with dozens and dozens of mechanical eyes. The event, so saturated with those who wanted to manipulate the structure of the situation for their own gain, was not about healing — and I was shocked to learn that many political candidates, including candidates whom I’ve supported, were using the tragedy as a political opportunity.

***

So, I am struggling with my answer — on a fundamental level — to my belief in humanity.

It’s funny. Just a few days before the mass shooting, I had written an essay entitled “The Dream I Had Last Night.” The actual content of the dream itself is tragicomic given the circumstances. (I dreamt that I had helped contribute to the shooting of a prison guard, and in retaliation his fellow prison guards murdered one of my closest friends in cold blood — as I explain in the essay, it was a metaphor for some anxieties I’ve been having lately.) But what I’d like to discuss from that essay is, well, again some sentences I wrote directly after the narrative portion of the essay. I wrote, “Now in my late twenties, I am certain that existential meaning exists. This certainty is not something I can rationally explain. Insofar as I’m aware, there is no rational explanation — and even if there was, I wouldn’t care for it. That my actions have consequences, and that these consequences have weight and meaning, and that more broadly people have the responsibility to bring themselves up and bring others up and make this world a better place — these are certainties I have way beyond rationality. Ultimately it is a faith. It is a belief.”

I am realizing that the best faiths are the same things as beliefs — and the semantics here are important. Faith exists in the internal tension. Forget the geopolitics and unrelated associations, “Israel” literally means “to wrestle with God” — and perhaps this is no accident. We make the active choice whether to struggle with belief, and it is this choice, if actively made, that makes the belief powerful.

A belief, I am realizing, is not a rational statement. It is something embodied and struggled for in a narrative sense.

During the performative “vigil” in which there were almost as many cameras as there were attendees, politicians and some community leaders gave speeches. Eventually we were asked to form a community circle. A couple of my friends and I chose to observe from the outside, away from the cameras — the tension caused by all the cameras was deeply palpable — and in this embodied action, at least for a little bit, perhaps at the very least to ourselves, we were able to recognize the gravity of the tragedy. We chose to honor the meaning.

***

As I get older, it becomes harder and harder to make this choice to believe in humanity. Like anyone, I’ve been through my fair share of personal struggles. And certainly I’d like to believe I am no longer as naive as I was when I was 22 and desperately trying to save my second-ever union organizing drive. I think my struggle with my belief in humanity is a personal hurdle, sure — and I also think it is societal. Our world certainly feels much darker than it did six years ago.

But this choice to believe in humanity, if made — in its difficulty, I’m realizing — is what makes both the choice and us powerful.

We can choose to make the choice to celebrate life. And perhaps this is the fundamental choice we must make.

I am heartbroken by the loss of 6 of our fellow community members. Let them be in our thoughts as we mourn.

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