I remember a time when I had no worries about viruses and imminent disease. I remember a time when I could come and go as I wanted. I remember a time when I moved through the world without recognizing the white supremacy embedded in every institution. I remember when I believed that my work as an educator fulfilled my obligation to social change. I remember when I felt that someone else should take care of the racial, gender, and social challenges facing our nation and society. I remember believing, as so many others did, that the election of Barack Obama meant that our nation was starting to transcend the limitations of racism.
These recollections are a fantasy, either a nostalgic reconstruction or willful ignorance of how the world was and continues to be. They were a fantasy I was able to construct because, as a white, heterosexual, middle-class, able-bodied man who was raised Christian, I occupy locations of privilege in every aspect of my identity. And because I was not confronted with the truth, I could construct this fantasy.
I was not blind — I knew that our society wasn’t perfect. But I was able to tell myself that it was good and getting better. Although I have never considered myself beholden to consumerism, I bought the neoliberal lie that others would take care of the remaining problems for me. Aside from my occasional inputs to the system through my vote, there was nothing much I needed to do.
Part of me mourns for that world. Part of me mourns for my own ignorance.
But once we see, we cannot un-see. And in reality, I would never willfully accept that ignorance again. I recognize that there must be ways in which I still embrace ignorance, and that we must all engage in a lifelong process of unlearning that ignorance. Perhaps someone as privileged as me most of all.
Mourning is painful. We are still — even after nearly half a year — confronting the painful reality of COVID-19. We are mourning the lives we lived before. And we must acknowledge — even if a vaccine is developed one day — those lives are gone. For those of us awakened by the murder of George Floyd, by the election of Donald Trump — those lives are gone.
We must mourn those lives, yes. We must say our farewells. And we must step into our new lives, lives where we create something different, something beautiful. Although we would never wish for it, mourning is also an opportunity. It is an opportunity to celebrate what was beautiful. It is an opportunity to release what was not. It is a chance to step through our grief, to step through our sadness, to step through our tears.
One day we will step through all of this and into a new life. Will that day be today?
Jim Schwartz is an Oak Park resident, an educator, and a blogger at Entwining.org.