"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness ... Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! gone down the American river! ... They saw it all! the wild eyes! the holy yells! ... They bade farewell! They jumped off the roof! to solitude! waving! Carrying flowers! Down to the river! into the street!" -- Howl, Allen Ginsberg
It occurred to me recently that I've had to think a lot about suicide -- and the risk of suicide in particularly brilliant, passionate and sensitive people -- quite a bit over the last few months. There's a theme that's emerged, and that was most devastatingly highlighted in the recent loss of Aaron Swartz. The theme is that it might be one of the most challenging ways to live: to see the world in its full complexity, to see all the flaws and obstacles in massive systems and structures, to be sensitive enough to see both the challenge of the world and the brilliant potential held within it, and then to put your life to use in changing things for better.
Our culture lacks good maps for how to lead such lives and to not become overwhelmed and exhausted by the costs of such living. And yet, the world only gets better when such individuals strive and survive among us.
As Audre Lorde once put it: "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare."
Aaron's case is particular in many ways. He uniquely bore the weight of an overly-aggressive government pursuit, financial costs and threat of jail time. His situation was an extreme one. What was done to Aaron goes beyond the themes touched in this writing. And I encourage all to look into the proposed Aaron's Law as one means of seeing that such aggressive government action cannot be taken again against an Internet activist who caused no true harm in their work.
Aaron's case was particular, and yet it shares commonalities I've witnessed other brilliant and passionate friends wrestle with. When you dedicate your life to changing the world for better, the way you gauge your sense of self, your worth and ongoing potential can be a complicated business.
The sensitivity and passion required to approach such change is both brilliant and a high cost. The individuals who change our world must spend a great deal of time looking, clear-eyed, at the most complicated challenges and flaws in this world. They must balance this insight and analysis with an almost inexplicable, driving, belief that something better is possible. And then they must break down that potential better world into incremental steps to be taken, each one requiring struggle, and each step only marginally moving the pendulum toward an ultimate goal.
At some point in my thinking on this topic, I spent time with a recent devotee to Zen Buddhism, a practice I have great respect for although likely know too little about. When speaking about the world and ideals, this acquaintance described what he felt would be ideal way to live: in a small room, in some quiet place, just practicing meditation. I argued that society would lose out if all those who had Zen practices left the mess of the world and disappeared into solitude. I thought of the activist-writer June Jordan's article "Waking Up In The Middle of Some American Dream," where she describes attempting to live in a solitary cabin in the woods to just think and write.
While living in that remote cabin, Jordan was raped and unable to reach anyone for help. She ends her essay on the experience with the conclusion that she wants to be of the world. To do her thinking and her work in the mess of the world. She wanted "an apartment smack in the middle of an unruly mix of other Americans," where she would have "more and more direct contact, direct conflict, to which I will have to react, remembering that the only escape from such difficult groundwork is fantasy."
She concludes, "There I may become less 'successful' but there I may hope to recover more of the actual touch of tenderness." This essay has haunted me in its truth, that the change most needed in the world also requires us to be centered in the midst of all that contact and potential conflict.
What bothered me most about the version of Zen living recently presented to me is the refusal of struggle -- the need to release, and turn away from, any sense of struggle. It makes me think about all of the individuals throughout history who struggled, and how they have made my life infinitely better due to their work. That I can vote, that I cannot be arrested for being a lesbian, that I can have health care and weekends and share public space with a brilliant rainbow of races, etc.
What I want is a guide for inner peace that allows for still working hard as hell in struggle to make the world better. Maybe this exists, and I've yet to discover the exact text. (Feel free to give suggestions in comments!) I know that the culture of change-making work is often not structured to support such balance. The hours required are intense. The amount on the line can be overwhelming. There's an unfortunate culture of poverty still inherent in work, where many organizations believe that if they aim to change the world, they should be able to get away with paying their workers less. Vacations and even true weekends are often frowned upon. Too often I've seen progressive-focused organizations work employees to the degree where even attending a doctor's appointment can be seen as a poor use of time.
The effort required to make a difference in the world is massive. And for that reason, the work is hard. But also, for that reason, there must be a culture of care built into the work.
Doing the hard and intense work necessary to change the world should not be seen as thus also taking a vow of poverty, or a vow to give up a balanced life. The work to create a better world must be held alongside a regular appreciation of the good in the world we have now. Whether the particular good that fuels someone is the ability to pause for sunsets, or to create art for the sake of art, or to spend more time listening to music, or among loved ones. Whatever it is that adds particular pleasure to our lives, it usually is not seen as equally important as the endless to-do lists we have in front of us. This is so even when the things that give us pleasure might be as simple as decent sleep, healthy eating habits, and time among those who remind us why we do what we do.
The only way to keep the brightest among us fueled and able to create the massive change we all benefit from has to include allowing more of this balance. This is an issue about personal balance, about workplace cultures, and also about how we treat each other.
While at the inauguration in January, I was blown away by the president invoking those from "Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall." The line was historic and moving on a grand level. But it also made me think about the singular individuals in those movements. How they would have been hard pressed to imagine a future day, and a second Inauguration of a black president, who would invoke their legacies as the historic pioneers who led our country toward a more perfect union. I imagine those involved within those movements at the end of a long day. Tired and possibly frustrated, wondering what all their efforts add up to in the end.
When your work is to change the world, it's impossible to gauge the current of ripples from your efforts. Many -- maybe most -- may never live to learn how much what they did mattered. This is true whether one lives a long life, or if one's life is tragically cut short. And so we have to find other ways to keep faith and to define value.
Those arrested the night of Stonewall, who woke up in jail and were embarrassed to be outed to everyone in the local press, they had no ability to know the fruits of their efforts. Nor, I would argue, do most of us. When changing the world, in whatever particular way one goes at it, is on your to-do list, it's hard to ever feel fully accomplished when you go to bed at night.
I'm not sure I have the full solution to this problem. (Another theme in trying to make change!) But, like any important change, I think we can start with incremental steps. There were other brilliant, passionate and sensitive friends I could have lost this last year, but was lucky in that they made it through their challenging times. In each situation, some setback felt overwhelming against the high expectations they aimed for. And, in each situation, it was those of us outside of that individual's brain who could see their promise, potential and inherent worth, beyond whatever particular challenges they faced at a given time.
One of the most moving responses to Aaron's death has been the community's response in support of his partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman. Organizers and friends have fundraised so that Taren will be supported and able to take time to travel for Aaron's memorials, to promote causes in his name, and to hopefully take some time for herself and her own healing. (You can make donations to that cause here.)
This part of our culture gives me great hope. That we can work together around this changing of the world. And that we can also support each other as human beings who need care and compassion. Through this, too, we can further change the world. In fact, this care is required if we aim to most successfully change the world.
There are so many lessons that can be learned in our loss of Aaron, and in the loss and struggle of so many others. I want to continue to work to change the world. And want to do so in a world that also appreciates those of us here, in the time that we are here. I want to live in a world where we can value the struggle, and also value that we wake each day and simply do the best that we can, and that we take care of each other and ourselves in the meantime. For all the brightness and brilliance so many bring to changing the world, I have full faith that we can change how we go about doing so as well. That we can care for each other a bit more along the way. And that we can prioritize sustaining ourselves, while we place our lives in the heart of all those necessary struggles.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.