Agony uncle: Resistance feels futile, how do I keep from burning out?
Dear Agony Uncle,
Help! I fear I am in danger of losing all sense of possibility. When I see the trivial obsessions of so many around me, when the world’s problems are increasingly urgent, and the strengthening of political currents powered by hate and scapegoating rather than any serious consideration of the issues at hand, I just want to rage and rage.
At a rational level, I know progress often comes in small steps, that every positive achievement is worthwhile (even if it can seem futile in the current landscape), and that the good fight is never finished. Yet this knowledge is no longer enough to sustain me when the times are so out of joint. I realize my anger has little useful function either, but faced with our species’ utter stupidity, it seems to crowd out any other impulse. How can I get a grip again?
As the literary critic Terry Eagleton points out, there is nothing more banal and misleading than optimism, which irrationally assumes that things will work out for the best. But optimists are in such short supply these days. Time is out of joint and despair like yours is widespread. Hope, Eagleton counsels in his book Hope without optimism, is a much more radical commitment to the future than mere optimism. But on what should our hope depend?
Perhaps the answer lies in the feeling of anger itself. The emotion has long been derided by political philosophers and Buddhists as unproductive. It corrupts and immobilizes, creating a public sphere cut through with revenge and bad faith. But, as the philosopher Amia Srinivasan reminds us, anger can also be a ‘motivating force for organization and resistance’ and the ‘fear of collective wrath… can also motivate those in power to change their ways’. This has been obvious for black and feminist thinkers. Audrey Lorde describes women’s anger as ‘a liberating and strengthening act of clarification’. It’s when we feel nothing that we’re really in trouble.
The widespread sense of anger and the recognition of injustice that prompts it – from the Occupy movement to the mass leftist mobilizations against Prime Minister Modi, to take two examples bookending this decade – show that, despite your foreclosed sense of possibility, this is an era in which the scope of the possible has actually expanded. From the 1980s until the 2008 financial crisis, the reigning mantra was that ‘there is no alternative’. The profound disruptions since 2008 show us that things can be changed, that the future can be different from the present. The political has returned, and the job of politics is to make people into subjects, give them agency – this is one path out of self-destructive anger.
But if the feeling is overwhelming, remember that art also allows us to ‘get a grip’ again. A recent film I recommend is Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2018), in which a priest, deftly played by Ethan Hawke, encounters a congregant who, overwhelmed by climate despair, is considering taking violent action against himself and others. It offers no easy conclusions, other than an embrace of love and patient grace. But great, complex art helps us get through difficult times, not as a distraction, but as a reminder that making life intelligible and meaningful is a never-ending work in progress. Perhaps the species ain’t so stupid after all.