For someone whose chosen art form is words, I really prefer silence. Even more so, images. Almost every idea or value I hold is held as a vivid image, including notions of transcendence or God. Of course, to share these images, I resort to words. For example, I like to image God as a “flow,” emanating out from the spark or bang of creation, present everywhere and in all things, moving all things unto rebirth and restoration despite the complexity and complexifying of reality—tinged as all things are with their decay and demise. For years I’ve even more preferred flowing water as my image for God. Not only because it is beautiful, but because I imagine the flow encompassing everything, including myself, the way a fluent stream includes every individual droplet of water. God as flowing water is the individual droplets; and each individual droplet is full of God; and God as the flowing stream is something far greater than the droplets themselves.
But the image that keeps coming to mind these days is not one of flow, or of the stream. No, I keep seeing the image of the boulders, or obstacles, in the stream. Specifically, I keep pondering how obstacles strengthen the velocity and intensity of the flow, how they embolden it. Heaven knows, many individuals and families have obstacles in their way in these pandemic times. Economic hardships; strain as kids learn from home and stress piles upon stress; health and healthcare fears. What is the flow that these obstacles are intensifying?
I would also say that as a stumbling democracy, the American collective is seeing its share of obstacles. We are in serious trouble—dysfunctional and manipulated by a political minority that has found ways to thwart the majority’s preferences and values, ways that don’t necessarily break the law but that exploit weak joints in our system we hadn’t adequately understood. Some are looking for pathways to repair.
When I think about obstacles blocking the flow of democracy, I see how the obstacles are in various ways intensifying resolve to think about reform, intensifying questions about how to strengthen our currently faulty joints so they aren’t weak and anti-democratic anymore. Questions about voting rights and voter suppression, gerrymandering, filibusters, court-appointment processes and lifetime appointments, the electoral college and popular vote counts, term limits and campaign finance reform, senatorial representation relative to population, and about how a sitting president can break the law and not be indicted because of doctrines espoused in a Justice Department memo. (Now that sitting president is suggesting our democracy embraces the possibility of presidents pardoning themselves.) Many feeble points in our democracy have been revealed in recent decades, especially over the past few years. And while the number of them can be disheartening because the sum total brings us to (seemingly) prolonged control by a political minority—no matter what voters decide at the polls, it is a good thing to see them clearly. It is progress, that more people are paying attention. And it is good some finally see that the weak points disenfranchise people of color, and in many cases, were intentionally designed to do so (gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the filibuster, to name a few). Now that so many obstacles to democracy protrude above the small-d democratic flow in ways that are reasonably undeniable, maybe we can do something about them. Again, these boulders, these obstacles, are strengthening the will of many Americans to consider reforms and to appreciate democracy as something we could lose. Perhaps cause for hope that obstacles are increasing the velocity and force of the demos, the people, can be found in the apparent high turnout in this November 2020 election—evident in early voting. And this despite a highly-contagious virus.
The thing is, obstacles increase intensity and velocity no matter the nature of the flow. The obstacles image applies where we don’t want to see a strengthening of flow and intensity, as much as where we desire it. I think of how the flow of white supremacy strengthens as bigots see their agenda thwarted by demographic changes in America, and by shifts in cultural values toward greater inclusion, and reckoning with our past and systemic racism. I worry how the obstacle of a sweeping electoral loss for far-right extremist groups might increase—perhaps substantially in the near term—the flow of push-back and hate.
I vividly recall talking with a friend during early days of DJT’s first presidential campaign about all the campaign had already exposed: the racist invective and white-nationalist sentiment that seeped into the mainstream as DJT’s campaign zipped open the scrim that had, for a time, kept them somewhat hidden—at least less mainstream. That invective and sentiment were not in any way new. But something about the campaign and presidency of 45 brought them painfully closer (though for those most affected, they were already painfully close). DJT has allowed racist systems to flourish in uncanny, malignant ways. Whatever the metaphor, the DJT presidency has resulted in many obstacles and has intensified the flow of trends that were always there.
I recently heard someone say that “optimism is a choice.” I was kicked in the pants by this statement. Of course, it is true. After all, what is the alternative? Where does pessimism get us? As I try to choose optimism, I will keep focusing on the image of the stream: the best kind of stream, one that flows toward repair and restoration and greater collective good. And I will focus on the ways obstacles build momentum.