On Crisis, Possibility, and Care

I have been thinking about crisis.  Here at Social Possibility Lab, we invited essay contributions related to crisis and possibility.  We received submissions from high school students, doctoral candidates, and college professors.  We received submissions from Canada and India, the Netherlands and the Phillipines, Nigeria and the United Kingdom. 

The submissions varied in focus, style, topic, and approach.  Not all are a fit for our project here.  Soon, we will post a few of the ones that stood out for us.  For now, the submissions remind me that the connections between crisis and possibility are complex.   Crisis can lead to possibilities for good, as well as for ill.  Naomi Klein has reminded us that crises and shocks can lead to disaster capitalism, “calculated, free-market ‘solutions’ to crises that exploit and exacerbate existing inequalities.”

Our current crises are multiple:  a public health pandemic, an economic crisis, a contested movement for racial and social justice, and a civic and social crisis of deepened divides, damaging leaders, and eroded trust in our common institutions.   

While such crises can be avenues for harm, for the disaster capitalists or political opportunists of which Klein warns, they can also be generative, giving rise to needed changes and a greater good.

I look around and see local, state, and national groups working to help our economy rebound, to advance greater resilience and future resistance to shocks.  I see activists and others demanding change, forcefully and often effectively.   I see local artists painting murals and neighbors making masks.  I see legislators and advocates working to translate those changes into better policy, to improve our justice system, protect citizens, and hold law enforcement officers accountable for wrongdoing.

Klein, in her March interview with Marie Solis for Vice, also noticed how our current crisis has brought glimmers of greater connectedness, feelings of common purpose, and more possibilities for good, 

“We’re seeing in real time that we are so much more interconnected to one another than our quite brutal economic system would have us believe. We might think we’ll be safe if we have good health care, but if the person making our food, or delivering our food, or packing our boxes doesn’t have health care and can’t afford to get tested—let alone stay home from work because they don’t have paid sick leave—we won’t be safe. If we don’t take care of each other, none of us is cared for. We are enmeshed.”

This time and season shouts of change.   We stand at the precipice of many possible Americas.  We are and will remain wounded, as individuals, and as a country. And, we are, and will continue to recover and renew, to seek better possibilities.  Perhaps the least we can do is bear witness.  Crises bring appearances and disappearances, losses and changes.

March’s pandemic ushered widespread change to our daily lives, global economies, and old certainties.   We lost comforting routines and easy conviviality as well as lives and livelihoods.  Winter departed suddenly.  Spring arrived shiftily, sidelong, sneaking in before we knew it.  The season materialized on March 19, 2020, the earliest arriving Spring in over 100 years.  We looked up startled, spooked – Spring is already here?

To disappear is to cease to be visible.  I am not sure we have a better word for seeing something for the final time, for taking a last look.  A quick search discovers “to see the last of (someone or something)”, which is most often an analog for good riddance.  “To take a last look” comes to mind.  Or “last looks” which, I find, is a theatre term for a cosmetic touch-up before a scene is filmed.

For now, I’ll stick with disappearing.  Earlier this Spring, I read about Cassie Pizzi in my local paper.  Cassi was 33 and homeless, when she was murdered in a strip of woods near an industrial block.  Her murderer was not found.  Cassi was one of the many disappearing ones in our society.  Every year, people disappear into society’s margins and some never re-emerge.   On any given night, over half a million people are homeless in the US.  Cassie Pizzi’s family and friends remembered her as smart, caring, and creative, with a bright smile that could light up a room.  The day before her murder, a community outreach worker saw Cassie downtown and recalled how the young woman smiled when she approached, “she smiled a lot”.

So many disappearing smiles this Spring, now turned to Summer.  As I write this on August 21, 2020, the American deaths from COVID-19 number 174,290, and the numbers continue rising.   So many last times.  The last breathe without pain.  The last smile of a parent or grandparent.  The numbers cut across nations and ethnicities, gender and class, age and station.  Yet, invariably it is the vulnerable – the elderly, the sick, the poor, who bear the brunt.   In our country, it is also the Black and the Latino populations that have been most affected, as detailed by CDC data and described in this July 5, 2020 article in The New York Times.  

“Latino and African-American residents of the United States have been three times as likely to become infected as their white neighbors, according to the new data, which provides detailed characteristics of 640,000 infections detected in nearly 1,000 U.S. counties. And Black and Latino people have been nearly twice as likely to die from the virus as white people…”

And there are other appearances and disappearances.  We are a wounded nation.  Millions of jobs have disappeared with unemployment at levels not seen since the Great Depression.  People have lost businesses and livelihoods. We remain wounded too in deeper ways, the long lingering wounds of racism and structural inequality and sanctioned injustice and systemic poverty.  The tragic needless cruel deaths of George Floyd.  Or of Breonna Taylor. Or Ahmaud Arbery.  

George Floyd’s last breathes were horrific and his brutal death a tragic and needless loss, but also a loosened hinge on a door wedged shut for too long.  That door may take a long time to fully open but it has helped summon a kind of appearing.   Appearing means to come into view.  What has manifested is a clearer sense of wrong, the persistent wrongs of prejudice and inequality, of structural racism and poverty.  

Symbols and signs of racism, such as statues of slaveholders and confederate generals are disappearing.  Symbols and signs of support for Black lives, for institutional change are appearing.  On a recent weekend here in my hometown in Virginia, a local non-profit, The Humble Hustle, organized a city-wide event called,  “Chalk Up the City with Love.”   The group provided chalk and guidance, encouraging people to write positive messages and support Black-owned businesses over the Juneteenth weekend.  As the organization’s founder, Xavier Duckett, said, 

“We need a shift in our community we need a shift in our social justice system we need a shift in every form and facet of the world…I feel like love changes things.  I feel like when you put love into something, things have to shift, things get shaken.”

Duckett’s sentiment may seem too simplistic and the chalk event not strong enough for the crises and challenges of this moment.  Yet, the needs of our time are many, so a myriad of responses seem somehow appropriate.  We do need activism and action, policing reform and policy action, and changes in political leadership at the highest levels. We need the type of shift that transcends one person or one office and instead transforms our national discourse away from divisive partisanship, petty jingoism, and kneejerk nationalism.  Yet, we also need reminders of the good, the kind, and the ways we can connect and share concerns and values across differences and divisions.

America is wounded, and our future is contested.  Tragedies have brought responses.  Some responses have brought backlash and counter-responses.  Crises bring our wounds and conflicts to the fore.  We are thrown in the ring and the gloves are taped on our fists.  We are shoved forward and the lights blind us and the crowds yell for us to punch, so we press shut our eyes and venture a mighty swing, but our opponents are quick and furtive and our slow lumbering roundhouses so easily dodged.  

Even when we take a side, stand with, or speak against, we are still in some ways on both sides of this fight.  We are the batterer and the battered, all purpled and bruised.  Those who oppose some of what we believe, who are not yet ready for the most progressive of changes, or who remain rooted in their longstanding stubbornly rooted biases and prejudices are not simply our foes.  They are us.  

Knowing this does not mean we should be quiet, play nice, or go along.  The silence of good people can perpetuate wrongdoing and injustice.  We need bigger, bolder, more sweeping changes.  This is a time for taking big swings and Ibram X. Kendi cautions against being overly patient.  As Kendi wrote in his essay for The Atlantic, the life and words of John Lewis reminds us that we should not simply sit and wait for future change but work and act now for the changes we want to see, the possibilities we hope to realize.  Kendi also cautions us that, “Racial inequity is a problem of bad policy, not bad people.”  

The crises of today demand that we take bold steps and big swings.  But, might we not also throw fewer wild punches?  Can we lift up what connects us in addition to pointing out what divides us?  The possibilities for greater good are abundant and our interests are intertwined.    The path through crises, of all kinds, is shaped by caring.  As Naomi Klein so powerfully stated, “If we don’t take care of each other, none of us is cared for. We are enmeshed.”