The morning after the 2016 election, my daughter crawled into my bed sobbing.
“They didn’t even elect McGinty,” she cried, referencing the female candidate who’d lost her bid to represent Pennsylvania in the Senate.
Both of the women I’d voted for–the women I’d taken my daughter with me to vote for–had lost. Evil, it felt, had won, and I could suddenly see that it was all around me. Trump’s surprising victory shook me to my core and caught me unaware in a devastating way. But more importantly, my naive optimism had brought this grief to my daughter. I felt guilty and stupid and wanted to never again let my idealism blind me to reality–and then I took it way too far.
It’s not that I had been completely oblivious to my country’s social ills before November 9, 2016. Trayvon Martin was murdered without remorse in 2012. In 2014, Eric Garner and Michael Brown were murdered by police, without consequence, and my sense of justice raged. I showed up to march in their names and waved cardboard signs with the words “I Can’t Breathe” scrawled in black bubble letters.
Our country, I was beginning to better understand, was haunted by systemic racism. But still, I believed her people were mostly good, and good would always prevail in the end.
And then 2016 happened.
People rallied around openly hostile and hateful rhetoric. There was no more need for dog whistles; misogyny and racism were front and center on the campaign trail. And people were eating it up. Defending it even! Sexual assault was bragged about and then brushed off by women. I was shocked and grew increasingly frustrated with family and friends who inexplicably aligned themselves with such blatant immorality, some even going so far as to claim it was for religious reasons.
Infuriating as it was to see continued evidence of rampant personal racism, I was still confident that common sense and goodwill would prevail. The polls agreed; no one who knew anything predicted Hillary Clinton would not become the first female President of the United States.
By 8:00 pm on November 8, I knew we’d all been wrong–and everything I thought I’d known about who we were as a society was proven to be a myth.
I don’t think you can overstate how devastating it is to have your entire worldview upended in a single day. I woke up a stranger in a strange land, no longer able to trust the millions of people who surrounded me.
And I’d made my daughter cry.
Never again. Never again would I let myself think about tomorrow what was wrong with today. Never again would I assume I shared a common moral compass with my fellow citizen. Never again would I be lulled by the beliefs that “we’re all basically good people”, “we all want the same things”, or “it will be OK in the end”.
I resolved to look my society’s evil dead in the face. I would listen to all the hurt and read all the stories. I would remain constantly aware of exactly how bad life and people were in every corner of the world. I wouldn’t look away to keep myself comfortable; comfort, I had learned, was both a privilege and a tool of white supremacy. I vowed to do better and be better. I vowed to stay woke.
Being woke all the time is exhausting.
(Even as I prepare to justify that sentence, I’m squirming in my chair at how utterly White it is.)
My white guilt has been choking me. While insisting on seeing all of the pain, I have forgotten to look for the joy. No, not forgotten; I have refused to look for joy out of guilt and a misguided sense of obligation.
I’ve wanted to pay penance for my privilege of whiteness. I walk the streets unafraid, and therefore I have no right to dwell on petty things like personal happiness. I’ve tried to level the playing field by carrying my fair share of misery. I was determined not to be too fragile for the discomfort and sadness; I would endure it all in order to prove myself a worthy ally.
Ugh. Looking more closely at it now, I see how sanctimonious and self-centered I have been, even if my intentions were the opposite. I truly wanted to be better so I could do better so that the world would be better for everyone else. But there were so many holes in my logic.
First, there is not a finite amount of joy or suffering to go around. I do not ease another’s pain by wallowing in my own. I do not free up joy for others by refusing to cultivate it in my own life. There is more than enough joy—and pain—to go around. Duh.
My years of self-help surfing have taught me that we must choose between a “scarcity” mindset or an “abundance” one: there is either not enough OR an unlimited amount of everything. Talent, time, money, energy, blah blah blah. Either you foolishly fear there is a pie too small to share, or you accept that there are infinite pieces. I have learned too much now to be able to buy into that simplistic bullshit.
There is not an unlimited amount of everything.
There are, in fact, x amount of dollars in the world, hours in a day, and people on the planet. Infinity does not apply to these tangibles. But there is enough. There is enough money in this country. There is enough land and food and potential for housing. It is not the quantity but the distribution and access that is a problem. Furthermore, the solution to problems of access and distribution of valuable resources is not rationing of my personal, internal happiness. Happiness is not a finite resource because it is not tangible. Duh.
Also? The unequal distribution of wealth in this country is not caused by my middle class ass trying to make enough money to pay for my kids to go on a few extra vacations. GOLD-PLATED TOILETS! are a thing!
I’ve never been a fan of empty martyrdom. Do not sacrifice yourself to a cause that is not furthered by your sacrifice. And yet, that is exactly what I’ve been doing with my diet of despair and self neglect. I’ve nailed myself to a stage cross in a production that saves no one.
I can’t do it anymore. It’s made me fatter and sicker, and not a single person (of color or otherwise) has been helped by my angst.
One of my personal goals for this year is to slow down and take better care of myself. That means taking the time to attend to my physical health and reclaiming responsibility for my mental well being. These short-term personal goals will undoubtedly make me better equipped to reach my long-term aspirations of actually making the world a better place.
Still, I will not walk blindly back into the white light of empty personal growth. I can no longer ignore reality in order to protect my own happiness. Instead, I have to be a grown up and learn to find the balance between idealism and truth, between being woke and being happy. My black brothers and sisters have been doing this for centuries. They have struggled and fought and still made magic. I can learn from that. My whiteness does not preclude me from experiencing my own magic, but hopefully my wokeness allows me to channel that magic into more liberty and justice for all.