It’s February 2, 2017 and I’m sitting with a small group of student activists, faculty mentors, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. He’s come to Oregon State’s Black Cultural Center to answer questions about his background and his books, but given that it’s been less than two weeks since Donald Trump became the President of the United States, there is one question on everyone’s mind:
How do we resist?
Someone finally asks just that, and Ta-Nehisi Coates responds with something like, “This may be counter to what you usually hear, but in my experience people who live lives of resistance tend to live lives of disappointment.”
This shocks the room. How can this be the answer given by a man whose writing has had such consciousness-raising impact — a man whose every move looks like resistance. The effect is not lost on him so he continues, “The truth is that this work has been happening for generations, and it is highly likely we will not see the change we wish to see in the world during our lifetime.”
Despair now permeates, so he brings his point home:
“Look, let’s not do the outside in thing where we see how we want to change the world and try to conform our insides to fit that. Let’s flip it and reverse it. Let’s do what we love, and let that change the world. I’m a writer. So I write. If that has an impact, great, but that’s not why I do it. I do it because that’s what I do. And that’s what I recommend you do. Do the thing that you are called to do.”
A collective sigh from everyone. The kind of sigh that signifies recognition and relief. Truth has been spoken here today, and we all know it. We know intuitively, buried beneath the noise, that this is how things work. But somewhere along the way, we got it twisted.
We’ve even twisted Gandhi’s words on the subject, into that famous “be the change” platitude that on the surface seems to suggest we begin within. But it doesn’t, does it? “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” This means you see a flaw outside in the world first, and then you internalize that and try to change yourself. What Gandhi actually said was this:
“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”
Though this does indeed mean that change within us will be mirrored in parallel change outside of us, it looks to me to mean something deeper. It points to the fact that we “need not wait” — that nothing in the outside world is responsible for our happiness. Rather, “the divine mystery supreme” is that “the source of our happiness” is found within.
Ok, but what do we do? What does all of this mean for how we resist? Does this mean I should just seek inner peace by moving to Nepal and meditating on a mountain for the rest of my life? Does it mean it’s cool if I just watch Futurama and eat cinnamon buns on the couch? ‘Cuz that makes me happy. How are either of these things helping anyone? Also, how often should I call my Congressperson? Does it even make a difference? When and in what ways should I voice my support for Black Lives Matter and when should I sit down and shut up? And should I go to marches, and how do I know if the march I want to go to is exclusionary or oppressive?
This is the kind of ruminating that leaves me living a life — not of resistance — but one that feels resistant. Because, truly, when I’m not up in my intellect angsting away — when I’m doing what I’m called to do — I don’t feel called to move into the mountains or watch Futuruma all day anyway.
I feel called to do all manner of things, like when I inexplicably felt called to take the course at OSU that wound up landing me a much coveted spot in that small discussion group with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Or when I felt called not to march on January 21, but wound up having a soul-nourishing afternoon with a friend that helped us both move forward.
All sorts of things call us, constantly, every day. And they usually don’t seem epic, or grand, or glamorous. They call us in the exact same neutral way that our bladders call us to go to the bathroom before we pee ourselves.
We can never truly know the impact of what we do before we do it, but the butterfly effect is definitely real (and is the topic of next week’s story). All we can know right this second is what we’re called to do in this very moment. And we can do that.
What if everything we feel called to do is actually resistance? For if we act from that place of clarity (or love, justice, logic, wisdom, righteous rage — whatever clarity looks like to us in the moment), it stands to reason that everything we do will further our values and our vision for the world.
What are you called to do — right this second — in this very moment? I for one am called to take a pee break. So I’m going to go do that.