The great children's author E. B. White once said something that speaks directly to our trying times. "I arise in the morning," he said, "torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day." I have thought of White often during this political moment, when things seem especially grim. Each morning I get out of bed, switch on the radio, and listen to the awful news while wondering what to wear: the pink-eared protest hat, the Black Lives Matter T-shirt, the safety pin? And I know I'm not alone.
If there's one question I am asked more than any other it is this: How do we keep going during days like these? Put another way, how do we sustain ourselves for the struggle? People who ask are referring to the daily battle we are entered into if we care about black lives, women's voices, immigrants' dignity, LGBTQ sisters and brothers' safety, and the earth's protection. We are under assault from all directions. During this time of Trump, we are constantly made aware that many of the politicians in power simply don't value all people equally and would sell any number of us out to win the latest news cycle. So we arise, as White did, filled with desire to improve a country that seems more badly broken by the day.
Yet we cannot just wake, worry, and work. This is the straight course to burnout, which is what some of the politicians are counting on. If good people working for change wear themselves out and give up, then the status quo wins. People are aware of this, which is why they ask me so regularly about how we keep going. As often as not, I point them to E. B. White. We wake up feeling compelled to save the world, but we must also make time to savor it; the relationship between the two is essential.
Charleston may be the perfect place to put this into practice. Because if there is anywhere that two things can be true at once — both the bitterness of our problems and the sweetness of our place — then it is here. I spend a lot of time working in the community with others on the seemingly intractable ills of systemic racism in schools, housing, law enforcement, and religion. The separate and unequal nature of our town was baked in from the beginning, and activists have been working for generations for a more equitable Charleston. Progress is painstakingly slow. Yet I also spend time walking by the water, smelling the jasmine, listening to our great jazz musicians, and enjoying the company of the wonderful people that make up our community. There is much to savor in this place. But as we plan each day, we must include time spent on improvement and time spent in enjoyment; either one without the other is out of balance.
E. B. White knew this, but so did one of my teachers, feminist ethicist Sharon Welch. She is a lifelong professor and activist, well-versed in the movements for freedom and equality and the toll that such work can take over time. She wrote that many of us begin the work with the hope of a certain outcome. We hold on to abolitionist minister Theodore Parker's old admonition, popularized by Martin Luther King, Jr., that the arc of the universe slowly bends in the direction of justice. This is an ethic of control, Welch teaches. We work as if we can control the end result, assuming that everything will turn out all right in the end. But the truth is that we cannot know exactly how everything will turn out and we would be naïve to labor under that delusion. Rather, Welch advises, we should develop an ethic of risk. While we work, we become aware that we are taking a risk. We cannot control the ultimate outcome, but we can control how we live and act and what we do with each day. The place we ground ourselves is not a place of control or certainty, but, for lack of a better term, a place of love. We work for the world and each other because we love the world and each other. Surely E. B. White would have understood. We are trying to save things and savor them at the same time.
Welch herself puts it best. "What is the wellspring of decency?" she asks, "What is the wellspring of courage, transformation, and persistence?" Our experiences of living fully and mindfully, she answers. "The wellspring of decency is loving this life...the ground of challenging injustice [is] the heartfelt desire to honor the wonder of that which is." And that's the answer to the question that so many keep asking. We sustain ourselves for the struggle by working for change and walking on the beach, raising our placards and reading with our children, finding the places to engage and also the places to retreat so that we can stay in the work for the long haul. Keeping such a balance may make it hard to plan the day, but it may also make for days that are more joyful and resilient.