I’ve written before about how hard it is for me to be patient. And if you thought it was hard for me to wait and watch the sun set on its own time without getting restless, you can only imagine how difficult it is for me to wait and watch as injustice happens. You know what it’s like, I’m sure: checking headlines, watching the news, night after night, thinking, “Maybe today something will happen that will stop all this.”
Maybe this will be the day that our leaders will start treating immigrants and people of color with decency and respect. Maybe this will be the day that politicians and corporations come to their senses about climate change. Maybe this will be the day that the predators and abusers in all kinds of positions of power start to repent.
And closer to home, there’s the same kind of daily struggle: Maybe today my goddaughters will tell me they had a good day at school. Maybe today my friend will decide to leave the boyfriend who’s mistreating her. Maybe today I’ll become kinder, more understanding. And then, you know: it seems like nothing happens. Nothing happens except the usual—the poor get poorer, the exploited are exploited even further, the privileged and the powerful keep on laughing.
Look, I try to stay hopeful. I read, and took to heart, that wonderful Dorothy Day quote: “No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.” So I do the things that seem like they have the potential to make a difference: Call my friends and tell them I love them. Hold the children on my lap and tell them I’m proud of them. Call my Congresspeople. Go to marches, go to protests, go vote, go volunteer, go collect signatures on petitions, ask vulnerable people what they need…. I don’t say that to pat my own back, I say that to make the point that I’m not just trying to be patient through these ugly situations. I’m not sitting down surrounded by unattempted work. But sometimes, despite Dorothy… I still feel hopeless.
This doesn’t feel like a clinical problem, a chemical problem. I have energy and can happily enjoy the hundreds of good things in my life. It’s more of an existential, philosophical problem. The kind, I imagine, that most people who care about the world go through from time to time, especially when they’re young.
Luckily, I’m surrounded by a lot of other people who care about the world, and who have been awfully patient and wise in dealing with my angst lately.
A few weeks ago, I sat in Mary Lou’s living room, thinking of my godchildren, thinking of what an uphill battle they’ll have to fight as they grow up. Everything that I try to do to make their little lives safer, happier, seems pretty paltry, in a world that is so unfeeling toward women and girls, especially those who don’t come from wealth and connections. They’ll always have lived through the things they’ve lived through. There will always be people who see sensitive young girls as disposable. What can I do to mediate that except for tell them they matter, except for drive them to church, except for take them out for pancakes on their birthdays?
“Oh Mary Lou,” I said, “Does anything matter?”
She knew what I meant, but she doesn’t sugarcoat much. “Maybe not,” she said. “Does it matter to you?”
“It matters to me, but does it matter?” I said.
And she said, “If it matters to you, it matters. And anyway, what’s the alternative? Not care, not help anyone, focus on yourself and no one else? You have to at least act as if what you’re doing matters.”
So I take that with me: these things matter. No matter how daunting the full picture is, it matters how you respond to the people around you. Because the people themselves matter. They matter enough not to doubt their importance, enough not to turn away, enough not to become wholly self-centered. And acting like nothing matters is no kind of way to live.
But it’s not enough just to be doggedly, seriously committed to the work. That can be joyless, too. And the women around me know that.
I have a long-running poem exchange with my good friend, Val. She and I work in the same building—she, up to her elbows in crying toddlers; me, up to my elbows in eCourses and newsletters and abandoned blog drafts—but sometimes, one or the other of us will sneak off to visit the other and read a poem we found. Here’s one that we quote back and forth to each other when things seem dark:
A Brief For The Defense, by Jack Gilbert
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
“We enjoy our lives, because that’s what God wants” we said to each other, sipping fresh afternoon coffee as the skies poured sleet on homeless people outside.
“To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil,” she reminded me, as I agonized to her about the Supreme Court while we were camping in a sunny, vibrant forest at the beginning of fall.
“We must admit there will be music despite everything,” I remembered, as we threw a party one Saturday night after our friend Breanna became an oblate. So many wonderful people were laughing and dancing in my living room, and meanwhile, of course, other people were suffering. But I understood, in that moment, that our happiness was not an insult to their pain, but a celebration of all the goodness that life contains, of all the gifts God gives, of the beauty that, in a better world, everyone could fully take in.
And then, of course, I'm always learning from Sister Carolyn, who co-facilitates a spirituality group for women in poverty. I watch the participant’s children while the mothers meet, a job I usually like. But a few weeks ago, I was leaving the program in a bit of a sulk, eardrums ringing from the children yelling and banging toys together, disappointed with some of the choices I’d made during the evening.
I have no idea what the women talked and prayed about that night but I guarantee it was more serious, more important, that my little complaints. But Carolyn wasn’t ranking our woes. She noticed that I was exhausted and aggravated and she said, “You know, when I feel that way, I tell myself, ‘Where’s the blessing in all this?’”
I felt a lump in my throat—I was in the kind of mood where you expect to argue with people and feel self-righteous and wounded, not the kind of mood where you expect the local mystic to kindly drop some wisdom into your lap—and I said, “I don’t know where the blessing is, Carolyn.”
“You don’t have to know tonight,” she told me. “You just have to keep looking for it. That’s all you need to do!”
Keep looking for the blessing. Keep looking for it. Like Jacob telling the angel, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”
Patience. Perseverance. Everything comes down to those qualities. But everything comes down to love, too, and to joy. Everything comes down to friendship and kindness and helping the next one in line. And everything comes down to knowing that there’s some hope, some meaning, in what you’re doing, even if you can’t see it yet.
We’re going into Advent now. I still have so much to learn about waiting in darkness. But I do have people who are waiting and working with me. And hoping, too.
As Mary Oliver said, “Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually.”
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A blog by Jacqueline Small
What happens when a woman in her mid-twenties begins to work, pray, and share life with a community of Benedictine sisters? What questions arise and what wisdom emerges? This blog will offer peeks into one young seeker’s experiences. Jacqueline is a staff member of Monasteries of the Heart and an oblate of Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. She holds a Bachelors degree in Sociology from Swarthmore College, a Masters in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Masters in Social Work from Rutgers University.