Tragedy teaches us change is the only normal we should know
Updated: Mar 13, 2021
I recently participated in a four-session Organizing for Justice training, virtually hosted by Truth and Titus Collective out of Kalamazoo. Near the end of the program, the organizer, Shannon, shared with us a quote by Octavia Butler:
"All you touch you change. All you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change."
The concept is not unfamiliar, and yet this quote has rooted itself into my working thoughts. It's been several weeks since the training ended and I find myself repeating it to friends and colleagues. I even updated my LinkedIn header and email signature with it--I'd never thought I'd be so cliche, but here we are.
In the midst of multiple, ongoing, global pandemics and tragedies, we have all been searching for answers. We have looked to leaders who have failed us time and time again; we have looked to family who have chosen to deny reality; we have looked inside ourselves to our hurting, scared inner child. Most of us have come up empty.
COVID-19, systemic inequalities, natural disasters, economic depression, governmental negligence, human trafficking, worsening climate change, human rights violations, fascism, concentration camps, corruption--individually, all things that are cause for concern and their own state declarations of emergency, but, when combined, have detrimental effects on the present and future lives of every one of us, whether we realize it or not. Not that this really needs to be reiterated again. The utter heaviness of this time is all-pervasive, weighing down on journalists' aching shoulders as they type up yet again another story making headlines. It's impossible to focus on anything else.
For some of us, perhaps the most unsettling part of living in these times is how different everything can become overnight. Here are a few examples from my own life recently.
Mid-July, I started waking up with a sore throat, and within days it got to the point where any swallowing or heavy breathing was painful. My lymph nodes under my jaw were swollen and hurting, and my entire mouth was inflamed. I didn't go into work for a week as I anxiously awaited results from a COVID test. The pandemic suddenly became hyper-local to me: I imagined my workplace closing down, and 3 counties worth of food pantries unable to provide emergency assistance; I imagined going into the hospital, or my lungs unable to return to their previous capacity once I recovered, or developing strange symptoms nobody could treat. Luckily, the test was negative and everything had been caused by all 4 wisdom teeth coming it at once, at least one of them causing a spreading infection. A round of antibiotics and I was fine.
Around the same time, a series of nasty storms brought tornado-esque, straight-line winds upwards of 70 mph to the Petoskey area. Coincidentally I had been riding with my aunt and uncle when the first storm hit. Driving back into town, my uncle's truck quite nearly slid off the side of the road from the force of the winds, and the horizontal downpour made seeing anything in front of the bumper impossible. We hastily pulled into the best shelter I could think of: a Hobby Lobby mall complex, tucked slightly down off the main drag into the side of a hill. Hiding behind that brick structure was our saving grace--we watched maple trees blow down while pines snapped in half. Part of the metal siding on the roof tore off.
When the "worst" seemed to pass, we ventured into downtown and gazed around at the near-apocalyptic scene. Dark skies, multiple sirens in each direction, power outages, buildings damaged, flash flooding down the streets and sidewalks, people huddled under awnings and in shops. Honestly, the most unreal feeling was when, in the middle of it all, I overheard couples complaining about the wait time or food quality of a restaurant trying to deal with it all, ON TOP of a pandemic. White privilege in a nutshell. *Face palm*
These instances scream both fear and fortune to me. I could have lost everything, but I didn't. At least not this time. This is the precarious threshold in which we all live.
Millions of others around the world have not been so lucky. I can't imagine the suffering Beirut and Lebanese citizens are experiencing, or those recently left homeless by wildfires, or those who suddenly lost a loved one to violence or the virus. While there will always be tragedy of some sort, the fact that we have become so technologically and socially advanced that we are funding private space companies $700 billion war machines but not ending world hunger or climate change speaks volumes. These are the changes we so desperately need, and it starts with a change in mindset.
I could throw in the far-too-stale example of insect metamorphosis, but I trust you don't need kindergarten hand-holding to understand that change is a natural facet of life. Understanding the need for change isn't the most difficult part; rather, it's accepting the pervasive, ever-present, and domineering role it plays in our lives.
How are we supposed to find comfort in the death of a loved one? In the death of a relationship? In the death of a way of life, a ritual, or a belief? How can we move forward knowing each step may bring us closer to an outcome we want to avoid?
Humans and other animals are programmed to adopt habits, and to find comfort in familiarity. We adopt routines, and not just routine behaviors but routine ways of thinking. The concept of not knowing when life-changing events may happen, while acknowledging that they can--and will--at any given moment, is therefore terrifying.
While there is no single or easy solution, there are things we can do to prevent tragedies. We can make them less likely to happen, and less damaging when they do. If we start with a strong foundation, our home is far less likely to be completely destroyed. And, if we change policies so that houses are built farther from the shoreline, maybe we could avoid this problem altogether.
What I'm talking about is systems change.
What is systems change, you ask? Here's a good way to talk about it, from London Funders:
What is systems change?
Systems change is about addressing the root causes of social problems, which are often intractable and embedded in networks of cause and effect. It is an intentional process designed to fundamentally alter the components and structures that cause the system to behave in a certain way.
Why is it important?
Unless we attempt to deal with the causes of social problems, we will only be mitigating the consequences of malfunctioning systems, or even providing inadvertent cover for their failure—we will not create the change we want to see. Systems change is not the only way of addressing social problems, but it provides a helpful way of understanding them and evaluating them, and sets out principles for achieving change.
Something this big and convoluted deserves its own library, so I'll be talking about this at a later date. For now, you can read my column in the Petoskey News-Review if you need some more persuasion. (Yes, this is definitely a personal plug, carry on.)
Instead, I'd like to end this post with what's changed for me personally, and what I've taken away so far from the ongoing disaster that is 2020.
I've analyzed the ways in which our world may change and mentally prepared myself for them. Mentally, I've more or less accepted worst-case scenarios. Civil war? Possible. Zombie apocalypse? Sure. Not saying things won't be difficult, but at least I won't be surprised (fellows with anxiety are way ahead of the game on this).
I've prioritized grassroots efforts. For me, this means a few different things.
Donating to people and small groups, not conglomerate "charities." If protesters are in need of gas masks, I Venmo money over. If a Black family in Charlevoix needs money to heal and to repair home damage from racists, I contribute. I avoid large organizations because there's a good chance my money is not going where it's needed most.
Supporting local initiatives and causes first. Yes, Black Lives Matter, but instead of travelling down to Grand Rapids to join a big protest, I'm going to work on racial justice issues in my small town that actually make a difference for my neighbors.
Powering forward with like-minded people. Never doubt what a small group of activists can do, with or without the "proper" credentials or experience (i.e. public transit in Emmet county). If you want something done, do it.
I've learned to trust my gut. Everyone has their own sense of intuition and ability to empathize, but my overwhelm and uneasiness in everyday situations sometimes makes me feel like my senses are inaccurate. But some recent experiences and conversations with Indigenous folks, who know much more about that innate knowledge, have validated me. I've discovered that I was right all along about people when all I could go on was a feeling. Now, I listen intently to my body, purposely allowing it space to voice its perceptions and make me aware of what is really going on. It's a unique relationship of respect and active listening that I've cultivated with myself.
My commitment to minimalism has only strengthened. When I prioritize the essentials, I can make sure they are good quality essentials. Instead of 4 subpar jackets I rotate through the winter season, I can rely on 1 or 2 for everything. Reducing also helps me keep things clean--I actually got rid of most of my dishes, because having more in my cupboard meant I would use and soil more, filling up my sink when I could simply wash and reuse the same bowl. That discovery was an odd eureka moment for someone who has depressive episodes.
Perhaps even more powerful is knowing the less I have, the less I have to lose. Fewer valuables means few items that can get stolen, broken, or lost. Organizing my files online means I can worry less about losing them by mistake, in a computer crash, or in a house fire. Though a little dark to voice aloud, that line of thinking has motivated me to increase practical, proactive choices, and planning ahead has reduced some of my anxiety.
Along those lines, I find myself more prepared for the worst. When the pandemic first started, I assembled a storage box with 30+ days of food. I also filled another container with tools and survival items (utility knife, first aid, 4 rolls of TP, thick socks, sleeping pad, medication, etc.). I have a "bug out" plan, though it could use some finalizing. While it hasn't come to that point, my supplies make me feel more confident for when disaster strikes. I'm not saying "be a prepper," but...yeah, I kind of am.
The more prepared I am, the more I'm likely to roll with the punches and adapt to change without it breaking me. The more prepared I am, the more resilient I feel. The more peace I emanate.
Ever start talking and realize minutes later that you've turned a conversation into a lecture? Sometimes that's how I feel with my blog posts.
Anyway, if you made it this far, thanks for reading. Hopefully these thoughts can give you something to chew on while we continue to drift through a pandemic.