(This occasional post comes from Edgar Rivera Colón, Ph.D. Dr. Rivera Colón is a medical anthropologist and teaches at Columbia University’s Narrative Medicine program. Dr. Rivera Colón is also Assistant Professor of Sociology and Urban Studies at Saint Peter’s University, The Jesuit University of New Jersey. He does spiritual direction with activists as a ministry of the Ecumenical Catholic Church (ECC), an LGBT-affirming faith community, based in Guadalajara, Mexico.)
“No hay mal que dure cien años — ni cuerpo que lo resista.” (Popular Puerto Rican saying).
“There is no evil that can last a century — nor bodies equipped to endure it.”
The last weeks have been a marathon (Trumpathon?) of despair, grief, resistance, and mobilization in the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory. I’ve spent part of time having long conversations with younger activists — folks in their 20’s and 30’s — about their feelings of disorientation and anger at what seemed to many to be an impossible electoral outcome. One of most dangerous, hate-spewing, fear-mongering, and vulgar presidential candidates in the US history is about to take over one wing of the state apparatus. Whatever one’s take on the whys and wherefores of the 2016 presidential election results, the negative effect on many bodies, spirits, and minds is palpable and worrying. What to do in such a crisis with so many layers and consequences that could warp even further the American polity for two or three generations hence?
I am sure the strategies to confront Trump will be sundry and have multiple points of entry, pressure, and mobilization. All well and good, but this will not be not enough to sustain community activist folks who are in the target zone of reaction, abuse, and violence especially if they are subject to burnout and despair. For some reason, Trump’s victory has called up the past for me in a way no other election has. When I was in my early twenties during the Reagan-Bush I era, I had a spiritual mentor who would regularly urge me to do what we now call “self-care” — lest I lose myself in the vicissitudes of the South Bronx communities I was working with and whose organizing I was supporting. During those many years living and working in the Bronx, I must have burned out about three or four times. After each burn out, my spiritual mentor would help me to pick up the pieces and try to give me some perspective on how to engage in struggle over the long haul. He would say: “Well, Edgar, you’re burnt out again, huh? Savor the grace, brother: at least once in your life you were on fire. Pity those who never were. Now, slow down, my son. Slow way down.”
The last couple of weeks have been a return to the themes of those South Bronx conversations of my young adulthood. Lessons learned? In times of great political and economic crisis, do the opposite of the temporal logic of that crisis — as Ignatius Loyola, one of my guardian ancestral spirits, would say: “Do the opposite (Agere contra).” Slow down in times of great upheaval and attend very carefully to the movements of political and spiritual desolation and consolation that animate your particular body-spirit and our shared body politic and local collectivities. Above all, make no life-changing decisions when you are in the grip of desolate feelings and your creative imagination is shocked into stasis or despair.
Slowing down does not mean suspending anti-Trump protest, mobilizations, and organizing. Not at all. Woe betide a people who allow Trumpism to proceed normally. Rather, slowing down means that we stop responding to the logic of manic urgency that the enemies of our freedom and liberation in this country expect us to mimic as a way of keeping us off balance and in turmoil. Rather counter-intuitively, Ignatius encouraged his early 16th century followers to pray as if their efforts were theirs alone and not dependent on divine intervention and act in the world as if God was in charge alone doing what She wills. The ‘material’ kernel of truth in that Ignatian ‘spiritual insight’ is that one can find a space of creative imagination ‘interiorly’ that makes the ‘outer’ work not dependent on just one person’s or group’s efforts. The paradox here being that at times the work of social justice activism is entangled with a form of surrendering one’s willful sense of control to be aligned with the collective forces at play shaping the historical moment.
Surrender is not exactly a cherished key term in activist cultures and politics. But, the older I get, the more I’m convinced that surrendering can be a bridge or a clearing post to more efficacious and expansive organizing and activist work. To put this another way: there are a plethora of lessons in the offing when one is a willing and self-reflective, as well as militantly discerning, bottom. For example, about a year ago, a few comrades and I decided to convene a meeting of Latino gay, bi, queer men who were known for their committed activism, organizing, popular education, and teaching skills. As we organized the event, the exact agenda for the meeting kept slipping away from us. What was the goal of this national meeting? Were we going to start a national organization for Latino gay, bi, queer men? What was going to be the concrete payoff for such a gathering? In the end, we kept the agenda items to a minimum and spent the time we had getting to know each other for the first time or anew and holding a space open just for us to have tough conversations about our lives and the way forward for our folks. We did what Susan Sontag would have deemed the anterior affective/political work that keeps us from unleashing the liberatory projects we need and keenly desire. In the end, we spent two and half days asking ourselves one question: how do we heal collectively while we undertake the tasks of revolutionary work that is the only sure path for our communities?
Revolutionary praxis is a paradoxical double move: a community searches for the tools of its own healing from the structures of violence that delimit its freedom and life chances while in the full confidence that there is nothing wrong with them — not a damn thing wrong with them, but the system, as they have lived it, must be transformed root and branch if they are ever going to achieve a full flourishing that many of us call being a human or, to put it more sharply, what freedom might feel like in our bodies/spirits. This work of healing community-building and liberatory activism and organizing requires a slow tempo to counter the commodified and rapid-fire pace of this particular moment of crisis in American racialized capitalism. It also requires collective structures of dialogue and careful discernment of the signs of our times and the seeds of hope contained in the Trumpian disaster in the making.
Dont Rhine, a Los Angeles-based popular educator and militant sound artist/activist, reminded all of us recently of the necessity of both revolutionary slow down and collective discernment when he wrote in response to Trump’s presidential win: “People newly radicalized in the moment will come to a movement as long as it demonstrates an ongoing capacity to take critical action. Newcomers will STAY in a movement as long as there is the space to reflect deeply on experience; the experience of crisis and the experience of taking action. The pedagogical disposition—an attitude of listening, inquiring, and testing our learning through action—converts rushed panic into slow but intensive deliberation. It subordinates action to reflection. It sees action as a prelude for thinking and not the other way around. It safeguards the relationship between the horizon and how we get there. And it embodies the interdependence of political education with organizing.”
Rhine is spot on when he urges that “rush panic” be worked through into “intensive deliberation.” This idea aligns with the late community activist and philosopher Grace Lee Boggs’ notion that “staying in place” may be the most radical thing any of us can do in the age of globalization. It is my contention that this insight is as much about about time as it is about space. Further, she argues that people interested in building social justice not only live differently in relation to space and time, but they also “grow their souls.” Not the soul as an individual possession somehow embedded in a the dynamic materiality of corporeal life, but rather that singular building and binding energy that emerges when people get into motion for their mutual self-development in collective freedom projects. Obviously, there’s tons of work ahead of us as Trumpism goes to Washington and beyond. So, let’s slow down, reflect, construct healing freedom projects of our collective crafting, and slowly destroy the barriers to the emergence of something like human love unleashed in the service of justice.