Topping everyone's holiday list

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Like a lot of people, I was shook up when Tom Broderick took his own life two days after Thanksgiving. There was no more committed social justice activist than Tom, and he inspired and reassured those of us who can't muster the same level of commitment to such a wide array of worthy causes. With his death, he almost seemed to be saying, "It's up to you now."

There's a song, written by Phil Ochs, that closes WFMT's Midnight Special each Saturday night (Kim and Reggie Harris version on YouTube). The title is "When I'm Gone."

There's no place in this world where I'll belong when I'm gone

And I won't know the right from the wrong when I'm gone …

Won't be asked to do my share when I'm gone …

Can't say who's to praise and who's to blame when I'm gone …

Can't be singing louder than the guns when I'm gone …

Can't add my name into the fight when I'm gone …

And I won't be laughing at the lies when I'm gone

And I can't question how or when or why when I'm gone …

My pen won't pour out a lyric line when I'm gone 

So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here.

Tom did it while he was here, throwing himself, wholeheartedly, into every fight for justice.

Suicide, of course, always raises the question of hope. Did he lose it? I don't know, but if he did, he's not alone. Hope is in short supply these days. It's been a long year. The Trump administration's daily outrages are wearing people out. So hope is probably at the top of the wish list this holiday season. Not wishful thinking. Not starry-eyed optimism. A tougher hope, one that withstands the gale force winds — and keeps standing. Sustainable hope.

So as my gift, I'll pass along a couple of the better statements I've heard lately on the subject. 

Victoria Safford, a Unitarian minister, wrote "The Small Work in the Great Work" in a collection of essays by various authors titled, The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Perseverance and Hope in Troubled Times, which is probably worth a read (or a gift under the tree). Maria Popova featured it in one of her Brain Pickings blogs. And Rev. Alan Taylor used it in a sermon at Unity Temple the Sunday after I heard the news about Tom:

Once you have glimpsed the world as it might be, as it ought to be, as it's going to be (however that vision appears to you), it is impossible to live compliant and complacent anymore in the world as it is. … Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of "Everything is gonna be all right." But a different, sometimes lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.

This past Sunday, I listened to the "On Being" interview with author Rebecca Solnit, who sees hope as a form of courageous uncertainty:

Hope, for me, means coming to terms with the fact that we don't know what will happen and that there's maybe room for us to intervene. We live in a very surprising world, where nobody anticipated the way the Berlin Wall would fall or the Arab Spring would rise up, the impact of Occupy Wall Street. Obama was unelectable, six months before he was elected. …

The earthquake shakes you awake. That's the big spiritual question: How do you stay awake? How do you stay in that deeper consciousness, that present-mindedness, that sense of non-separation and compassion and engagement — and courage, which is also a big part of it, and generosity? People are not selfish and greedy. Why has everything we've ever been told about human nature misled us about what happens in [disaster] moments? And, as I think neuropsychologists and the Dalai Lama's research projects and economists are beginning to say, what if everything we've been told about human nature is wrong, and we're actually very generous, communitarian, altruistic beings who are distorted by the system we are in but not made happy by it? What if we can actually be better people in a better world? …

People in this culture seem to love certainty more than hope, which is why they often seize on these really bitter, despondent narratives — they know exactly what's going to happen. That certainty just seems so tragic to me. I want people to tell more complex stories and to acknowledge that sometimes we win, and that there are these openings. But an opening is just an opening; you have to go through it and make something happen. You don't always win, but if you try, you don't always lose. …

Hope is tough. It's tougher to be uncertain than certain. It's tougher to take chances than to be safe. Hope is often seen as weakness because it's vulnerable, but it takes strength to enter into that vulnerability, of being open to the possibilities.

The good news is there are plenty of good reasons to keep hope alive. The bad news (not so bad, really) is that it demands what it should demand of us: that we be better people in a better world.

That's what Tom Broderick was working toward.

And if we want to honor him, I guess we'll have to do it while we're here.


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