I washed the dishes tonight not because they really needed done (they didn’t) or because I care what my sink looks like lately (I don’t) but to have something to do with my hands.
The new Ken Burns documentary, Central Park Five, came out on Netflix, so Brian and I watched it together. Ken Burns’ documentaries are powerful and personal, but all of them up to this point took place in the fairly-distant past –The Civil War, The Prohibition, World War II. He has an uncanny ability to paint a detailed portrait of a time and culture through personal stories. But Central Park Five was the first portrait of my culture, my time that he’d made. It was much darker than I’d expected, a story about rampant and unabated racism.
It’s been impressed on me lately that I’m not fighting against flesh and blood, but against powers much bigger than you or I or our collective fuck-ups. That’s good and all – I no longer need to attack everyone I think is wrong – but what the hell am I supposed to do against this living, breathing thing called Racism in America? How do I fight pervasive, violent sexism? Where do I begin to address class and economic inequity? These things creep like a virus into our highest levels of government, into our justice system, into our churches and into our homes. When you no longer have people to fight, and are instead faced with this big, complicated mess of issues, where do you even start?
So I just washed the fucking dishes.
And I thought, which is the primary function of doing dishes. I thought about rage and I thought about love, two primary motivations for human action.
I have a lot of rage. Rage and I go way back. In fact, my whole family has a lot of rage – for injustice and for plain old stupidity. Rage is a great spark. It’s the appropriate response – the only response, sometimes – to shitty things that happen to people. Rage is an adrenalin rush, the match that lights the fire.
But rage only takes you so far. Eventually the adrenalin runs out, and the spark dies, and if rage is all you’ve got then you’re over. Mary Wollstonecraft was writing about the problem of sexism in the 1700’s and you really think you’re going to make a difference in a month? Or a year? You are unique if your rage lasts that long (and perhaps in need of psychological help).
Love is different though. It feels different. Love makes me want to work quietly, day in and day out, without recognition or compensation. Love makes me hope in a better world, even while I know it won’t be accomplished in my lifetime. It makes me believe in change and progress, albeit slow, slow progress. It makes me look at my enemy and see the product of a broken system, not a monster to be vanquished. It sits on the couch with me quietly while I read and discover the many ways I am a part of this broken system. Love gently changes my mind, changes my heart, changes the way I see people. It lies in bed with me in the dark when I teeter on the edge of hopelessness at my utter inability to fix anything. Love is quiet and subversive and more powerful than the things that keep me up at night.
When I was little and had nightmares, my mom would tell me it’s impossible not to think about bad things. “If you try not to think about scary things,” she would say, “that’s all your brain will focus on. You have to replace those bad thoughts with good ones.”
I figure this is no less true with real monsters than it was with the imaginary ones that lived under my bed. So I’m in the slow process of transforming my thoughts, replacing cynicism with hope and anger with love, in the hope that my little bit will help drive back the dark.