Leader’s Message – “The Gift of Despair” – December 2016

Oft hope is born when all is forlorn. – J.R.R. Tolkien

 

Having grown up in rural western New York State, I wasn’t as surprised by the presidential election result as many of you were. Trump lawn signs were prominently planted in the front lawns of my hometown, and many of the people I knew from school watch only Fox News. Nonetheless, I was disturbed that an antiquated Electoral College once again put someone into office who had lost the popular vote. (Previous beneficiaries were Bush in 2000, Harrison in 1888, and Hayes in 1876.)

 

We held sharing circles for our staff on the afternoon after the election and for members that evening. There were tears and anguish, fear and anger. The growing and deepening division between our two Americas was painfully clear, and many doubted that the union could hold.

 

In the days that followed, we assessed the danger that awaits us when Trump takes office. As I write this, we have learned about the appointments to his White House staff and cabinet. We can expect assaults on human rights and environmental protections. We are already experiencing a campaign of disinformation that promotes heinous positions taken by alt-right media.

 

A colleague, Jone Johnson Lewis, shared a colloquy called “The Gift of Despair” that I led last month. Founder Felix Adler wrote and spoke about learning from failure; it is when we realize that, despite our best efforts to achieve an ideal, we have failed that we also realize what it was that we most wanted. It is similar to mourning for someone who has died. We recognize how much we valued that person and despair over our loss.

 

This colloquy includes a quotation from historian Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States: “[H]uman history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places — and there are so many — where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

 

Here is my ethical dilemma: How do I attribute worth and dignity to people who deny human rights to others? Trump’s election gives license to every racist, misogynist, homophobe, xenophobe, etc., and the attacks are increasing. These incidents must be meticulously documented and reported. Visit the Southern Poverty Law Center for details: https://www.splcenter.org. We who still have privilege must be allies and accomplices to those who do not, and we must do so with humility, following the lead of organizers for their respective groups.

 

My Ethical Culture faith has been sorely tested as I try to stay in relationship with people whose values are diametrically opposed to mine, people who accuse me of condescension when I bring to their attention the suffering of marginalized Americans and the disinformation promulgated by hateful social media sources. I don’t want to pay lip service to our ethical rule of eliciting the goodness in others and thereby in ourselves by engaging in the “toxic niceness” of simply accepting that they hold different opinions. This election is a tragic reminder that rights are never given; we must fight for them every day of our lives. It is time to roll up our sleeves and take to the streets; to employ every legal means available and every civil disobedience tool in our kits to right the wrongs that have already, and will continue to be, unleashed.

 

The time calls for action. Up, then, and let us do our part faithfully and well. And oh, friends, our children’s children will hold our memories dearer for the work which we begin this hour.

Felix Adler, Founding Address, May 15, 1876

 

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