Hope in the midst of shadows.
I remember so well the 2008 election. It was the first time I came to care about politics, and I was an ardent Obama supporter.
It wasn’t a hard decision, really. I’d read his memoir Dreams of My Father and then The Audacity of Hope, and I found in those pages someone who valued many of the same things I did: the common dignity of every person, the depth of each person’s lived story, thoughtfulness wed to compassion.
You know how it happens sometimes when you’re reading a really good memoir, how the author begins to feel kindred, like pieces of their heart overlap with pieces of yours? That happened for me with Obama when reading his books. As I read his story — particularly his first memoir — and how he thought about things and moved through events, I felt a kinship with him and what he valued. This was further confirmed as I followed the evolution of his campaign. All along the way, he was about involving people, about elevating our shared humanity, about dialogue.
When Obama won the 2008 election, I cried. In the days following the election, I bookmarked more articles than I can count about those first few days of his presidency. I called him a rockstar for signing the executive order to close Guantanamo Bay so soon after taking office.
Then came the disillusionment.
I watched — first in disbelief, then in bewilderment, then in frustration and indignation, then in defeat — as everything I had supported in Obama’s campaign and had voted for in the election booth got stymied at each and every turn. I watched as the values I support — good will and compassion chief among them — clearly did not hold sway with our swath of elected representatives in Congress.
If Obama moved left, his opponents showed up to stop him. If he then moved right, they put a stop to that intention too. It must have been so frustrating for him.
For me? I grew disillusioned. I lost faith in our system. I lost faith in our leaders. I lost faith in the entire thing, entirely.
The 2008 election and its aftermath coincided with the beginning of my nonviolence journey. In fact, the inauguration happened just a few weeks after I studied under Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne for a graduate residency on the theme of social justice, where Tony and Shane built on the idea that had already planted itself in my mind and had started this journey in the first place: that love is a force strong enough to change whole societies, not just singular hearts.
Tony and Shane helped me begin to think about the institutional side of justice. They helped me see that I need to care about systems and institutions if I’m to care about peace and shalom coming to earth as it is in heaven.
And so I cared and believed it was possible.
And then my government showed itself incapable of bipartisanship. And has continued to show itself this way for almost the entirety of the elapsed time since.
Walking this nonviolence journey, I often grow weary. The weight of all that is not shalom in this world weighs heavy on me. I see the problems in the Congo, in Sudan, in Egypt, in Syria, in Israel and Palestine, and in so many other places in the world — including these United States — and I can’t help but feel myself drowning in the darkness we are capable of heaping on one another.
Some people call it compassion fatigue, when you care about and work for good in the world and then become overwhelmed by all that is left to do or all that seems to not make a difference. When you’re walking a journey toward nonviolence, you pay attention to this idea of compassion fatigue. And you ask how you are meant to respond to it. (At least, I do.)
And the answer I have come back to again and again on this journey is this: I can only do what my one finite life is meant to do. I cannot invest my life in every cause. I cannot give to every need. I cannot learn about every issue or injustice. I cannot solve every problem.
I am but one finite life.
But I can find the place I’m uniquely suited to serve. I can discern what that place is. I can go deep in one direction instead spreading myself thin — and ineffectively — across many.
The last few days, I’ve been carrying a new image around with me in prayer. It’s an image of myself and God walking side by side on a sandy path toward the horizon. In my immediate field of vision is a manhole directly to my right — a pit where I used to be, but God pulled me out of it. Now we’re walking away from the pit, and I’m leaning against God’s shoulder as we go.
I’m leaning against God’s shoulder.
It’s an image, for me, of dependence. Of remembering where my strength comes from in the work I do. (Hint: not from me.) Of receiving his strength to shoulder my weight as we walk along together. Of noticing his strength is such that we never break our stride as I lean against him.
Tonight, as I watched the government shutdown happen in live time by following tweets on Twitter, I felt those two familiar companions settle in again: disillusionment and weariness. My peacemaker’s heart — the one that cares about dialogue, about finding common ground, about honoring others and seeking to understand — just about bowed down to the ground in weariness.
Is there any hope? I just didn’t know.
So I spent some time with that image of me and God walking on that sandy path toward the horizon, myself leaning against his arm as we walk. And in that image, I found peace.
In that image, I noticed God’s lack of alarm. He just kept walking along with me, not freaked out about the government shutdown (like I was) and not bowed low with weariness (like I was). It was like — no surprise here — he had the strength to carry what’s happening.
That relieved me.
And I noticed his posture toward me was this: Just keep doing your part. Bring shalom in the way only you can. Keep going.
So I will. And I hope you will too.