Rebecca Solnit on the Impotence of Anger

screamingwoman - Version 2The internet is a hotbed of outrage.  If someone expresses an unpopular opinion or tweets something provocative or controversial, the net erupts in vehement vitriol.  In our era of social media, angry mobs don’t attack with torches and pitchforks; they disgrace your name on the blogosphere or accuse you being a “racist” or a “bigot” on Twitter and Facebook.  Rather than physically punish offenders, we shame and humiliate.  Much like Hester Prynne in the Scarlet Letter, we march transgressors of political correctness through the streets, hurling tomatoes of ad hominem attacks along the way.  In our age of rage, red-faced screaming has replaced dialogue. 

On one hand, the fact that we get angry at those who use hurtful speech represents a giant leap for basic kindness and human decency.  In many ways, today we have a deeper respect for words, both for what they mean and how they can potentially wound people.  We’re more sensitive and thoughtful.

But have we swung too far to the opposite extreme?  Are we too sensitive?  too willing to label something “offensive”— not because it’s actually derogatory or hurtful— but because it challenges our opinions?  threatens our long-standing beliefs?  Are we too angry?  Why as a culture have we exchanged the sober-mindedness of civil discourse for the intoxicating righteousness of outrage?  Is anger only a destructive force, an inextinguishable inferno that annihilates everything in its wake?  Or can anger be harnessed for light and heat? 

These questions are what Rebecca Solnit ponders in her paradigm-shifting essay collection Call Them By Their True Names.  A catalog of our era’s most urgent catastrophes and crises, Call Them By Their True Names is wide-ranging, covering topics as diverse as the remarkable ability of ordinary people to redirect the course of history, the importance of using language clearly and accurately, and the responsibility of journalists to challenge the status quo and rewrite the world’s broken stories.  In one of the collection’s most timely essays “Facing the Furies,” Solnit explains anger is a spectrum ranging from minor irritation on the one end to indignation on the other.  Though we often pathologize anger, anger is a useful alarm system that alerts us to a breach of our moral code.  When we want to shriek and slam doors, Solnit explains, we feel we’ve been done wrong:

“At its mildest, the emotion is no more than annoyance, an aversion to mild unpleasantness.  Annoyance with an ethical character becomes indignation: not only do I dislike that, but it also should not have happened.  Indeed, anger generally arises from a sense of being wronged.  In this respect, my conviction that you should not have eaten the last slice resembles my conviction that we should not have bombed Iraq: in each case, I see an injustice and wish it to be righted.  Anger that is motivated by more than a mammalian instinct for self-protection operates by an ethic, a sense of how things ought or ought not to be.” 

We’ve all heard the old adage “love is blind.”  When we’re head-over-heels in love, in the throes of infatuation, it’s impossible to objectively assess our partners: one sip of passion’s intoxicating liqueur and we become dizzy with delusion.  In the glorious beginnings of a budding romance, we can rationalize our lover’s every flaw: he can’t split the check because he’s in-between jobs, we explain when our friends ask why he never pays; he never comes around because he’s not a big drinker and doesn’t like the bright lights and loud music at nightclubs.

If love is blind, so is anger.  While it can signal our boundaries have been crossed, it can also interfere with our ability to think rationally.  As Solnit writes:

“Anger is hostile to understanding.  At its most implacable or extreme, it prevents comprehension of a situation, of the people you oppose, of your own role and responsibilities.  It’s not for nothing that we call rages ‘blind.'”

In the public sphere, anger can either incite riots or spark revolution, fan the flames of chaos or fuel positive social change.  Cesar Chavez.  Mahatma Gandhi.  Martin Luther King.  By framing their fights in terms of right and wrong, these activists were able to use feelings of outrage and injustice to rally support for their cause.  In each case, anger galvanized a movement and built a better world.

But though anger can be channeled to reform unjust systems and rectify wrongs, it can also be exploited by those in power to advance their own agendas.  No other public figure has stoked the flames of our anger more furiously than Donald Trump.  In our era of unprecedented division, animosity seems to be the state of political discourse: we’re angry at those across the party divide, we’re angry at those who disagree with us.  Those who have historically been at the top of the social ladder— white menare angry to find themselves thrust to the bottom rungs.  The result?  Resentments that have been simmering beneath the surface are finally boiling over.  White supremacists have moved from the margins to the mainstream; anti-immigrant rhetoric and cries of “America first” dominate news cycles.  By inflaming our anger and redirecting it toward a common enemy, whether that be immigrants or Muslims, Trump protects his own power.  After all, if citizens are pitted against each another, if they’re divided rather than united, they’ll never band together and revolt against their actual enemy, those in power:

“Is anyone more possessed by this kind of obliterating anger than Donald Trump?  Our nation is currently led by a petty, vindictive, histrionic man whose exceptional privilege has robbed him of even the most rudimentary training in dealing with setbacks and slights.  He was elected by people who were drawn to him because he homed in on their anger, made them even angrier, and promised vengeance on the usual targets, domestic and foreign, successfully clouding their judgement as to what electing him would mean for their health care, safety, environment, education, economy. 

Yet Trump’s furious ascent is only the culmination of fury’s long journey toward enshrinement in this country.  Our legal system, for example, has been lurching backward for some time from the ideal of impartial justice toward a model based on retaliation.  The prison system still employs a plethora of terms that suggest otherwise—  “rehabilitation,” “reform,” “correction,” and the penitence implicit in penitentiaries— but its current rhetoric and practices are often purely punitive. 

[…]

Governments regularly manufacture or exaggerate threats to suggest that violence is necessary and restraint would constitute weakness: during World War II, the United States condemned citizens of Japanese heritage; during the post-war period, it targeted leftists.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it scrambled to find new adversaries, and has since settled on Muslims, immigrants, and transgender people.  The provocation of anger is essential to government by manipulation, and the angriest people are often the most credulous, willing to snatch up without scrutiny whatever feeds their fire.”

Just like any powerful emotion, anger must either be channeled or controlled and contained.  If we allow a flame of anger to transform into a full-blown wildfire of rage, we can become violent or do something stupid we later regret.  Another possibility is we simply waste time being mad.  The last time she faced her own furies, Solnit recalls she squandered thirty-six irretrievable hours indulging in fantasizes of revenge:

“We speak of blind rages; I know the last thing that made me angry—  an anti-Semitic comment— got me stuck replaying the details of the interaction, buttressing my arguments as though I would fight the charges in court, and generally simmering for thirty-six hours or so that might have been spent more profitably and pleasantly on almost anything else.  The slur took place in the course of a conversation about the uses of left-wing violence.  The comment, you could say, called a whole ethic group on a whole continent the cowards of the country: ‘And didn’t 6 million die because they didn’t resist the Nazi regime?’  After I questioned the remark, the speaker eventually apologized and admitted the factual inanity of the statement, but I was nevertheless stuck. 

The anger crowded out other thoughts, got me mired in a resentment that didn’t threaten me directly (though anti-Semitic slurs, and the beliefs behind them, underlie anti-Semitic acts, which are having a resurgence right now).  It was as though something weighty and hard-edged had slammed shut in my chest, and a fire simmered inside.  It was as though my mind was on a treadmill revisiting the Polish partisans, the French resistance, the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Primo Levi in the Italian Resistance, and so forth.  But this rumination was not, overall, pleasant or productive, and when I finally exited the treadmill I vowed to self-regulate better.”

So how do we regulate this volatile emotion?  Do we suppress it?  Or do we express our ire freely and lash out at whatever and whomever provokes our rage?  Solnit suggests we adopt the Buddhist’s approach to anger management.  Rather than repress our anger— which is extremely unhealthy, not to mention ineffective— or weaponize it to wound others, we can feel it and simply let it go: 

“Fury is a renewable source; though the initial anger may be fleeting, it can be revived and strengthened by telling and retelling yourself the story of the insult or injustice, even over a lifetime.  Many accounts of American anger focus on what people are angry about, as though reactive anger were inevitable and the outside stimulus provoking it the only variable.  They rarely discuss the status of anger or the habits of mind that support it.  Those are discussed elsewhere, in spiritual and psychological literature and in anthropological texts. 

In Christianity, wrath is one of the seven deadly sins; patience, a cardinal virtue, is its opposite.  Buddhist theology regards anger as one of the three poisons, an affliction to be overcome through self-discipline and self-awareness.  ‘The tradition ethical precept about anger is sometimes translated as not to get angry,’ Taigen Dan Leighton, a Zen priest and translator of Buddhist texts, explained to me.  ‘But in modern Soto Zen Buddhism, we say not to harbor ill will.’  The Buddhist writer Thanissara put it thus: ‘Anger is traditionally thought to be close to wisdom.  When not projected outward toward others or inward toward the self, it gives us the necessary energy and clarity to understand what needs to be done.’

We will all feel anger at one time or another, but it doesn’t need to become animosity or be renewed or retained.  Buddhism offers an elegant model of anger management.  Harness the emotion.  Feel it without inflicting it.”

Solnit concludes by correcting a popular misconception.  Though we imagine anger is a sort of gasoline that drives the engine of social change, anger— at least blood-boiling red-faced rage—  isn’t sustainable over the long-term.  The most effective activists may first get involved because they’re dissatisfied with some aspect of society, but to make real, lasting change, they must remain committed to their cause, to action, not their own rage:

“In my experience, those dedicated to practical change over the long term are often the least involved in the dramas of rage, which wear on both the self and others.  After reading or listening to, say, hundreds of detailed accounts of rape, you may remain deeply motivated to engage in political action but find it difficult to get indignant about the newest offense.  The most committed organizers I know are often not incensed.  Their first obligation is to changing how things are— to action, not self-expression.”

Rebecca Solnit on the Responsibility of Journalists to Challenge the Status Quo & Rewrite the World’s Broken Stories

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Humans are hardwired to tell stories.  Because of our superlative intelligence and unrivaled reasoning abilities, we seek to make meaning from chaos.  Whether we’re telling a story about a disastrous blind date or the Geneva peace talks, we organize events using a logical narrative arc.  Rather than describe every detail of a scene, we choose what to omit and what to keep.  Storytelling is the art of selection.  If we were recounting a blind date, for example, we wouldn’t bore our listener with the clink of champagne glasses or the color of the waiter’s bow tie or an exhaustive inventory of the Merlot’s every flavor and note; we’d focus on what was relevant to the central plot.  If the story of our blind date was the story of yet another failed attempt to find love, we’d emphasize our date’s flaws: his too-confident demeanor, his obnoxious habit of always redirecting the conversation to himself— not the seductive scent of his cologne. 

In real life, it’s often hard to discern meaning: there’s no central conflict, no systematic sequence of events, no easy-to-follow arc.  Sometimes the boyfriend we thought would be our chief love interest turns out to be a passing fling; sometimes an interminable three hours on the phone with Comcast has no bearing on our life’s larger plot.  But in a story, every element performs an essential part.  A description of character, a specific sequencing of scenes, a use of one word instead of endless others: all are deliberate choices on the part of the writer.  Everything, therefore, is meaningful.

But a story is just that, a story— not an objective representation of truth.  As British philosopher Alain De Botton so astutely observed, stories “omit and compress; they cut away the periods of boredom and direct our attention to critical moments, and thus, without either lying or embellishing, they lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting wooliness of the present.”  Storytelling is ultimately a kind of manipulation.  Just as a photographer artfully arranges his frame, foregrounding his subject and relegating other aesthetically-pleasing but not-so-important objects to the background, the storyteller emphasizes certain things while downplaying or entirely neglecting others.  He zooms in and out.  But just as a photograph can only capture a small snapshot of a scene within its frame, a story is just one person’s perspective— it’s a version of reality, not reality itself. 

Stories may only represent a portion of reality, but they determine our collective experience.  Public storytellers like journalists tell the stories that dictate how we see the world.  In her paradigm-shifting essay collection Call Them By Their True Names, Rebecca Solnit argues journalists have a responsibility to rewrite our culture’s broken stories.  Why?  Because if they change their stories, they can change the world. 

In “Break the Story,” one of the collection’s most insightful essays, Solnit uses a sharp-witted play on words to suggest journalists have a duty not only to break stories in the traditional sense, but to shake up the status quo:

“‘Break the story’ is a line journalists use to mean getting the scoop, being the first to tell something, but for me the term has deeper resonance.  When you report on any event, no matter how large or small— a presidential election, a school board meeting— you are supposed to come back with a story about what just happened.  But, of course, stories surround us like air; we breathe them in, we breathe them out.  The art of being fully conscious in personal life means seeing the stories and becoming their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do.  Being a public storyteller requires the same skills with larger consequences and responsibilities, because your story becomes part of that water, undermining or reinforcing the existing stories.  Your job is to report on the story on the surface, the contained story, the one that happened yesterday.  It’s also to see and sometimes to break open or break apart the ambient stories, the stories that are already written, and to understand the relationship between the two.”

My favorite English professor used to say there’s two levels to every novel: a narrative and a story.  The narrative lies on the surface of plot, character, setting.  To get to the story, you have to plunge beneath what is said and dive into the depths of what is implied.  This is just as true in real life.  Just as we must read between the lines to get the real story, we must shovel away the dirt of our socially-sanctioned stories to unearth truth.  Rather than simply perpetuate our culture’s most enduring myths, journalists have an obligation to question the very frameworks on which they depend.  Too often the stories we tell go unexamined.  And, too often, we only hear stories that reinforce rather than challenge.  While certain stories dominate headlines, other more pressing issues get little coverage, suppressed in shame and secrets, either spoken in whispers or completely ignored. 

What stories are heard and what stories are silenced largely depends on who’s in power.  Take terrorism and domestic violence.  Though the fear-mongering media might have us believe terrorism is the most urgent issue of our times, terrorism claims very few American lives.  In contrast, domestic violence kills nearly a thousand women every year.  To put the scope of the issue in perspective, between 2001 and 2012, 6,488 American troops were killed in Afghanistan and Iraq; in that same time period, 11, 766 American women were murdered by current or ex-partners.  That’s nearly double the number of troops who died during the war.  As Solnit writes:

There are stories beneath the stories and around the stories.  The recent event on the surface is often merely the hood ornament on the mighty social engine that is a story driving the culture.  We call those “dominant narratives” or “paradigms” or “memes” or “metaphors we live by” or “frameworks.”  However we describe them, they are immensely powerful forces.  And the dominant culture mostly goes about reinforcing the stories that are the pillars propping it up and that, too often, are also the bars of someone else’s cage.  They are too often stories that should be broken, or are already broken and ruined and ruinous and way past their expiration date.  They sit atop mountains of unexamined assumptions.  Why does the media obediently hype terrorism, which kills so few people in the United States, and mostly trivialize domestic violence, which terrorizes millions of U.S. women over extended periods and kills about a thousand a year?  How do you break the story about what really threatens and kills us?

[…]

Part of the job of a great storyteller is to examine the stories that underlie the story you’re assigned, maybe to make them visible, and sometimes to break us free of them.  Break the story.  Breaking is a creative act as much as making, in this kind of writing.”

So why is it that we speak so often of the improbable event of dying in a terrorist attack and so seldom of the very real threat of being killed at the hands of an intimate loved one?  In the end, society will only endorse the stories that maintain the status quo.  The baseless story that terrorism is the greatest threat to national security identifies a common enemy, breeds fear and paranoia and makes the populace easier to control.  Such a story upholds the power of the powerful.  If we’re too busy talking about terrorism, we’re not talking about rising income inequality or the disappearing middle class or mounting college tuition costs.  The story of epidemic domestic violence, however, exposes the serious problems underlying our power structure.  If we were to examine why nearly 40% of female murder victims are killed by an intimate partner, we’d have to rethink the damaging myths we propagate about romantic love: maybe a suitor who immediately showers you with adoration, for example, is not a fairytale prince but inappropriately obsessed; maybe a man who texts constantly wanting to know where you are and what you’re doing is not head-over-heels in love, but controlling and potentially dangerous.  We’d have to rethink how we teach boys to be men: the ways we make excuses for their bad behavior, the ways we encourage their aggressiveness and entitlement.  Indeed, we’d have to rethink society itself. 

The widespread occurrence of rape is yet another story our culture silences.  When we do discuss sexual assault, our tendency is to distrust the woman.  The prevailing belief is women lie about rape and make accusations either to exact revenge or get attention.  The narrative is women are spiteful and vindictive; the story is an alarming number of men rape and never face prosecution:

“Some of the stories we need to break are not exceptional events, they’re the ugly wallpaper of our everyday lives.  For example, there’s a widespread belief that women lie about being raped, not a few women, not an anomalous woman, but women in general.  This framework comes from the assumption that reliability and credibility are as natural to men as mendacity and vindictiveness are to women.  In other words, feminists just made it all up, because otherwise we’d have to question a really big story whose nickname is patriarchy.  But the data confirms that people who come forward about being raped are, overall, telling the truth (and that rapists tend to lie, a lot).”

George Orwell once said “good prose is a window pane”: when a reader looks out the window of a finely-crafted sentence, he should more clearly see the world.  Plainness and preciseness formed the pillars of Elements of Style, his definitive guide to writing well.  To his timeless advice, Solnit adds writers should construct their own windows rather than look through other people’s.  A good writer is a freethinker.  Never will he mindlessly conform to popular opinion or march with the masses in neat little rows.  Instead, he will dispel the myths that sedate us in a stupor of inaction and challenge his moment’s status quo:

“The writer’s job is not to look through the window someone else built, but to step outside, to question the framework, or to dismantle the house and free what’s inside, all in service of making visible what was locked out of the view.  News journalism focuses on what changed yesterday rather than asking what are the underlying forces and who are the unseen beneficiaries of this moment’s status quo…This is why you need to know your history, even if you’re a journalist rather than a historian.  You need to know the patterns to see how people are fitting the jumble of facts into what they already have: selecting, misreading, distorting, excluding, embroidering, distributing empathy here but not there, remembering this echo or forgetting that precedent.”

For more from our era’s most passionate defender of democracy, read Solnit on the impotence of anger, the importance of calling things by their true names, and the remarkable ability of ordinary people to redirect the course of history.  If you want to delight in even more of Solnit’s lyrical language, meander through her lovely meditations on walking as a political act and walking as a means of replenishing the soul and reinvigorating the mind.

Rebecca Solnit on Our Responsibility to Call Things By Their True Names

 

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Language is a distinctly human ability; our language is made up of words— not growls and grunts.  But though our capacity to communicate is what separates us from beasts, we rarely stop to marvel.  We can write!  We can talk!  We utter hundreds, if not thousands, of words a day, most often to relay the humdrum information of the mundane: the frivolous pleasantries of superficial small talk, the obligatory “hello, how are you?” in the grocery store check out.  We’re careless with our words, only approximating— rather than exactly— expressing our thoughts.  We allow words to slip from our mouths, forgetting they have a current of implied meanings and historical connotations that surge beneath the surface of their definitions in Merriam Webster.  We use offensive, derogatory language to revolt against political correctness, thinking we’re provocative defenders of free speech when we’re really just insensitive morons. 

Throughout history, those in power have intentionally manipulated language to conceal, rather than reveal, truth.  The ruling class weaponizes words to pit the marginalized against each other.  Political parties mobilize hate speech to advance their agendas and dehumanize entire groups.  Tragically, in our 1984 dystopia of “alternative facts,” language continues to be abused.

Though we take words for granted, nothing is more powerful.  “I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word,” Emily Dickinson once wrote.  Indeed, the Bible attests, “In the beginning was the Word.”  Words catch the elusive and inexpressible.  When we take care to choose words that precisely convey our meaning, we can articulate what was once inarticulable.  Before anything can exist in the physical, material plane, it must first exist as an idea.  The theory of relativity, the notion of civil disobedience, the foundational democratic belief that “all men are created equal”: all began as ideas.  They only revolutionized our lives once they were expressed in words.  Language is the vehicle through which we can transport our innermost thoughts; it’s how we spread ideas.  Words launch movements and ignite revolutions, overthrow oppressive governments and spark meaningful discourse.  In other words, they remake the world.

Because we’ve been bestowed with the miraculous gift of language, we must be responsible with our words.  This pressing responsibility is what Rebecca Solnit explores in her paradigm-shifting essay collection Call Them By Their True Names.  A catalog of our era’s most urgent catastrophes and crises, Call Them By Their True Names is wide-ranging, covering topics as diverse as the impotence of anger, the remarkable ability of ordinary people to redirect the course of history, and the responsibility of journalists to challenge the status quo and rewrite the world’s broken stories.  As the title suggests, Ms. Solnit’s latest collection is a passionate plea to name things precisely.  Our ancestors knew there was tremendous power in naming things as they are.  As Solnit says, it’s only after we diagnose a disease that we can find a cure:

“One of the folktale archetypes, according to the Aarne-Thompson classification of these stories, tells of how ‘a mysterious or threatening helper is defeated when the hero or heroine discovers his name.’  In the deep past, people knew names had power.  Some still do.  Calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness.  It’s not all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step.

When the subject is grim, I think of the act of naming as diagnosis.  Though not all diagnosed diseases are curable, once you know what you’re facing, you’re far better equipped to know what you can do about it.  Research, support, and effective treatment, as well as possibly redefining the disease and what it means, can proceed from this first step.  Once you name a disorder, you may be able to connect to the community afflicted with it, or build one.  And sometimes what’s diagnosed can be cured.”

It’s crucial that we call things by their true names because language determines our reality.  When we say “a woman was raped” instead of “a man raped a woman,” the passive construction essentially erases him from the equation and absolves the perpetrator of responsibility.  The result?  Because passive voice transforms the grammatical object (the woman) into the subject, we begin to view rape as a “women’s issue.”  In our discussions of sexual assault, we focus on the victim (“She shouldn’t have drank so much…”/”She shouldn’t have been walking down a dark alleyway alone…”) instead of the perpetrator.  Rather than teach men to treat women with dignity and respect, we teach women it’s their responsibility to protect themselves against men’s violence.  Ultimately, how we discuss rape dictates how we understand it.  Or, as British philosopher Alain de Botton so astutely observed, “how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.” 

At the heart of Call Them By Their True Names is the assertion that words can either clarify or mystify, inform or mislead.  They can liberate or oppress, promote tolerance and understanding or spread hate.  In the end, we can only fix what we acknowledge is broken.  When we call things by their true names, we can see the world as it is— and begin to change.  

Rebecca Solnit on Hope, Hindsight & How Our Choices Can Redirect the Course of History

rebecca solnit #2What is hope?  In 1861, Emily Dickinson composed the most enduring definition: hope is the “thing with feathers that perches in the soul.”  Over a century and a half later, Anne Lamott wrote hope was the belief that even in the desert you could still find “life, wildflowers, fossils, sources of water.”  For poet of politics Rebecca Solnit, hope exists at the crossroads of “might” and “might not.”  We might repair our broken republic; we might eliminate small-mindedness and bigotry; we might recover our lost democratic ideals.  However, hope is pragmatic enough to know possibilities are not certainties.  Though we might break the oppressive silence surrounding sexual assault, though we might pass stricter gun control laws and finally put a stop to senseless mass shootings, we might not.  Whether or not we do depends on us. 

Our ability to redirect the course of history is what Solnit explores in her consciousness-raising 2018 essay collection Call Them By Their True NamesRequired reading for anyone concerned about the state of American democracy, Call Them By Their True Names is wide-ranging, covering topics as diverse as the impotence of anger, the importance of using language to preserve truth rather than disseminate fabrications and falsehoods, and the responsibility of journalists to challenge the status quo and rewrite the world’s broken stories.  Though today -isms threaten to topple our very democracy, Solnit never resigns to despair.  Despite Donald Trump and the alt right, despite fake news and distorted facts, despite melting ice caps and the impending threat of global warming, Solnit remains hopeful; indeed, hope is the bedrock of all her writing.

In one of the collection’s most beautifully buoyant essays, “In Praise of Indirect Consequences,” Solnit asserts hope implies responsibility.  Unlike optimism, which believes humanity will undoubtedly have a happy ending, or cynicism, which maintains we’re doomed, hope says the future will be determined by what we do (or don’t do):

“Optimism assumes that all will go well without our effort; pessimism assumes it’s all irredeemable; both let us stay home and do nothing.  Hope for me has meant a sense that the future is unpredictable, and that we don’t actually know what will happen, but know we may be able to write it ourselves.

Hope is a belief that what we do might matter, an understanding that the future is not yet written.  It’s an informed, astute open-mindedness about what can happen and what role we might play in it.  Hope looks forward but draws its energies from the past, from knowing histories, including our victories, and their complexities and imperfections.  It means not fetishizing the perfect that is the enemy of the good, not snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, not assuming you know what will happen when the future is unwritten, and part of what happens is up to us.”

In our near-sighted age, it’s difficult to magnify the telescope of our perspective and clearly see into the distance.  Big businesses pollute our skies and poison our oceans because they consider short-term profit rather than long-term environmental consequences.  Wall Street bankers exploit others to afford the excesses of a lavish lifestyle: extravagant parties, flashy Ferraris, luxurious multi-million dollar penthouses— they think nothing of how their reckless decisions will later affect the economy.  But our choices in the present— from the most significant to the smallest, most seemingly inconsequential— will be felt for years to come.  A flap of a butterfly’s wings can set off a tsunami halfway across the world. 

History belongs not just to monumental events and larger-than-life personalities but to commonplace moments and ordinary people.  As Leo Tolstoy once said, history is shaped by “an infinitely large number of infinitesimally small actions.”  The lyrical Ms. Solnit agrees: the little things we do today can reverberate for centuries.  Even when a political campaign or social movement appears to be a “failure” from the limited perspective of our particular moment in history, it may be a triumph in the grander scheme of things.  For example, though British suffragettes didn’t win the right to vote until 1928, their early activism would go on to inspire Gandhi who, of course, would go on to inspire Martin Luther King.  His philosophy of non-violence would later influence activists in South Africa and protestors in the Arab Spring: 

 Ideas are contagious, emotions are contagious, hope is contagious, courage is contagious.  When we embody those qualities, or their opposites, we convey them to others.  That is to say, British suffragists, who won limited access to the vote for women in 1918 and full access in 1928, played a part in inspiring an Indian man who, twenty years later, led the liberation of the Asian subcontinent from British rule.  He, in turn, inspired a Black man in the American South to study his ideas and their application.  After a 1959 pilgrimage to India to meet with Gandhi’s heirs, Martin Luther King wrote, ‘While the Montgomery boycott was going on, India’s Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.  We spoke of him often.’  Those techniques, further developed by the civil rights movement, were taken up around the world, including in the struggle against apartheid, at one end of the African continent, and in the Arab Spring, at the other.”

Solnit concludes by citing great French philosopher and social theorist Michael Foucault: “People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does,” he wrote.  Using the lovely metaphor of a tree, Solnit suggests the seeds of our actions can take root and blossom in miraculous, unexpected ways:

“You do what you can.  What you’ve done may do more than you can imagine for generations to come.  You plant a seed and a tree grows from it; will there be fruit, shade, habitat for birds, more seeds, a forest, wood to build a cradle or a house?  You don’t know.  A tree can live much longer than you.  So will an idea, and sometimes the changes that result from accepting that new idea about what is true, or right, just might remake the world.  You do what you can do; you do your best; what what you do does is not up to you.”

How many of us have turned on the news and felt like we lived in a doomsday dystopia of racism and misogyny?  of discord and division?  of mistrust and acrimony?  We live in an age of white supremacy and anti-immigrant hysteria, police brutality and mass shootings.  Yet Solnit insists we can still shift the tides of history.

Rebecca Solnit’s Serenade to the City & the Solitary Stroller

“What is the great attraction in cities?” Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal in 1845, “It is universally admitted that human beings invariably degenerate there and do not propagate their kind.”  As the Industrial Revolution alienated laborers from their labor and gobbled up countrysides, transcendentalists lamented we lost a deep connection both with ourselves and with nature.  For Thoreau, it was only amid the autumn quietude of the New England woods, the soothing sounds of a tranquil brook, the idyllic charm of a French countryside that man could finally be free of the corrupting influence of civilization.  To him, the modern metropolis was a Dante’s inferno of debauchery and decadence, a netherworld where— as James Shergold Boone so poetically said— “the appetites, the passions, the carnal corruptions of man are forced, as in a hotbed, into a rank and foul luxuriance.”  

This strict dichotomy between city and country has almost always existed.  Since Shakespeare, artists have romanticized the rural as a paradise of purity and goodness and condemned the urban as an inescapable cesspit.  In transcendentalist thought, the city stomped out individuality, transforming human beings into an automated assembly line of soulless factory workers.  Displaced and alienated, the solitary city stroller was just another cog in the capitalist machine, another stranger in a sea of anonymity.

But for our era’s poet of politics Rebecca Solnit, whose prose is both lyrical and luminous, the city is neither a gutter of vice nor the slaughterer of the human spirit— it’s an inspirer of wonderment.  In her endlessly edifying Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Solnit contemplates cities as much as she contemplates transporting herself by two feet.  In the chapter “The Solitary Stroller and the City,” she recalls returning home to San Francisco and rediscovering her love for the city.  With exquisite elegance and understated poetry, she portrays urban life as a multitude of experience.  A leisurely stroll through Golden Gate Park, an hour of window-shopping along Haight Street: each person she passes is a potential friend, each doorway, a portal of possibility: 

“Every building, every storefront, seemed to open onto a different world, compressing all variety of human life into a jumble of possibilities made all the richer by the conjunctions.  Just as a bookshelf can jam together Japanese poetry, Mexican history, and Russian novels, so the buildings of my city contained Zen centers, Pentecostal churches, tattoo parlors, produce stores, burrito places, movie palaces, dim sum shops.  Even the most ordinary things struck me with wonder, and the people on the street offered a thousand glimpses of lives like and utterly unlike mine.”  

vintage san francisco

I’ve always been entranced by the excitement of the city: the art galleries, the plays, the museums, the concerts, the cafes, the exhilarating sense that there was always something going on no matter the time of day.  When I lived in Berkeley, the ordinary act of walking down the street to the corner store took on the grand dimensions of a Homeric odyssey.  Wandering down Telegraph Ave, past Amoeba Music and Moe’s Books, the exotic smells of Burmese food and incense mingling with the scent of salt water from the bay, I was a hero on a quest who had to navigate the many obstacles in my way (mostly one too many runaway hippie kids pestering me for a cigarette or spare change).  Strolling through the city was always eventful.  If I didn’t discover a delightful gem of a coffee shop hidden along a side street or a charming second-hand bookstore, I almost always witnessed something entertaining: a rapper free-styling on the corner of Telegraph and Channing, a dapper young man in horn-rimmed glasses and loafers charging 25 cents for a poem, an anarchist shouting his manifesto into a megaphone while standing on a milk crate.

For Solnit, the charm of urban life is this novelty and variety, the thrill of not knowing what’s going happen when you leave your apartment and step onto the street.  In a city, there’s still room for surprise and spontaneity— unlike in a suburb, where the rhythm of life is as predictable as a song playing on repeat.  To stroll through a city is to be enchanted by a sense of endless possibility: you never know what you’re going to see or who you’re going to meet.  For my fellow Bay Area native Ms. Solnit, San Francisco remains the quintessential city.  Unlike in many modern metropolises, which have become larger-scale suburbs where residents are cordoned off in their own private vehicles and rarely interact in public space, in San Francisco, it’s still possible to socialize with strangers on the street:

“Cities have always offered anonymity, variety, and conjunction, qualities best basked in while walking: one does not have to go into the bakery or fortune-teller’s, only to know that one might.  A city always contains more than any inhabitant can know, and a great city always makes the unknown and the possible spurs to the imagination.  San Francisco has long been called the most European of American cities, a comment more often made than explained.  What I think its speakers mean is that San Francisco, in its scale and street life, keeps alive the idea of the city as a place of unmediated encounters, while most American cities are becoming more and more like enlarged suburbs, scrupulously controlled and segregated, designed for non-interactions of motorists shuttling between private places rather than the interactions of pedestrians in public ones.” 

Grant Avenue, Chinatown, San Francisco, California

For more from Wanderlust: A History of Walking, delight in Solnit on the power of walking to replenish the soul and reinvigorate the mind.  Or if you want to see Solnit bring her perceptive intellect to sauntering, cities and politics, visit walking as a political act and the streets as the realm of radical change, revolution & democracy.

Rebecca Solnit on Walking as a Political Act & the Streets as the Realm of Radical Change, Revolution & Democracy

love not warFor most of us, the “streets” connote inner-city squalor and moral decay.  The toughest streets of San Francisco represent humanity at its bleakest: homeless people mumbling to themselves in the piss-scented Tenderloin district; dilapidated slums littered with broken glass, used needles, and garbage; gun shots and switchblades.  But for poet of politics Rebecca Solnit, author of Wanderlust: A History of Walking, the streets are less a cesspit of danger and destitution than an amphitheater where the drama of democracy is staged.  Parades, protests, rebellions, revolutions, riots: the seed of every history-making social movement begins, Margaret Mead reassured us, with “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens.”  For Ms. Solnit, the streets are the birthing place for these movements.  In her lexicon, the “street” carries a more hopeful connotation: democratic in the purest sense, streets are where organizations of common citizens can directly participate in their own governance and make their voices heard simply through their physical presence.  Walking, then, can be a political act, a profound way of making a real, lasting difference:

“This is the highest ideal of democracy— that everyone can participate in making their own life and the life of the community— and the street is democracy’s greatest arena, the place where ordinary people can speak, unsegregated by walls, unmediated by those with more power.  It’s not a coincidence that media and mediate have the same root; direct political action in real public space may be the only way to engage in unmediated communication with strangers, as well as a way to reach media audiences by literally making news…Parades, demonstrations, protests, uprisings, and urban revolutions are all about the members of the public moving through public space for expressive and political rather than purely practical reasons.  In this, they are a part of the cultural history of walking.”  

Though we usually understand walking in the most literal terms and commonplace definitions, walking in many ways is a figure of speech.  When we walk as a form of protest, we’re giving expression to our beliefs.  The civil rights activists who marched on Washington on August 28, 1963, the hundreds of thousands who banded together against the Trump administration on January 21, 2017: they weren’t just mechanically putting one foot in front of the other— they were using one of the most powerful words in the political dictionary, their bodies, to write history.  In both cases, they composed the poetry of history with the stanzas of their feet:

“On ordinary days we each walk alone or with a companion or two on the sidewalks, and the streets are used for transit and for commerce.  On extraordinary days—on the holidays that are anniversaries of historic and religious events and on the days we make history ourselves— we walk together, and the whole street is stamping out the meaning of the day.  Walking, which can be prayer, sex, communion with the land, or musing, becomes speech in the these demonstrations and uprisings, and a lot of history has been written with the feet of citizens walking through their cities.  Such walking is a bodily demonstration of political or cultural conditions and one of the most universally available forms of public expression.  It could be called marching, in that it is common movement toward a common goal, but the participants have not surrendered their individuality as have those soldiers whose lockstep signifies that they have become interchangeable units under an absolute authority.  Instead they signify the possibility of common ground between people who have not ceased to be different from each other, people who have at last become the public.  When bodily movement becomes a form of speech then the distinctions between words and deeds, between representations and actions, begin to blur, and so marches can themselves be liminal, another form of walking into the realm of the representational and symbolic— and sometimes, into history.”  

march on washington

But in order for the public to peacefully assemble and effectively protest, it must have public space.  As chain restaurants and strip malls steamroll our cities into suburban wastelands of cookie-cutter conformity, our cities lose more than just their distinctive character— they lose crucial civic space.  Without streets to march on, without squares where we can gather, we can’t directly participate in our democracy.  For the ever-eloqent Solnit, a city’s design can either promote civic engagement or make it impossible for citizens to meaningfully demonstrate:

“Only citizens familiar with their city as both symbolic and practical territory, able to come together on foot and accustomed to walking about their city, can revolt.  Few remember that “the right of the people peaceably to assemble” is listed in the First Amendement of the U.S. Constitution, along with the freedom of the press, of speech and of religion, as critical to democracy.  While the other rights are easily recognized, the elimination of the possibility of such assemblies through urban design, automotive dependence, and other factors is hard to trace and seldom framed as a civil rights issue.  But when public spaces are eliminated, so ultimately is the public; the individual has ceased to be a citizen capable of experiencing and acting in common with fellow citizens.  Citizenship is predicated on the sense of having something in common with strangers, just as democracy is built upon trust in strangers.  And public space is the space we share with strangers, the unsegregated zone.  In these communal events, that abstraction the public becomes real and tangible.  Los Angeles has had tremendous riots— Watts in 1965 and the Rodney King uprising in 1992— but little effective history of protest.  It is so diffuse, so centerless, that it possesses neither symbolic space in which to act, nor a pedestrian scale in which to participate as the public…San Francisco, on the other hand, has functioned like the “Paris of the West” it was once called, breeding a regular menu of parades, processions, protests, demonstrations, marches and other public activities in its central spaces.”

Solnit’s Wanderlust will transform the way you look at walking.  For more poetic and soul-expanding meditations on sauntering, read Solnit on the power of walking to replenish the soul and reinvigorate the mind.

Rebecca Solnit on the Power of Walking to Replenish the Soul & Reinvigorate the Mind

wanderlustIs there any occupation as prosaic as walking?  We walk from our bed to the kitchen to make our morning coffee, out the front door to go to work, to the corner store to grab groceries.  Sometimes we stride along the beach joined hand-in-hand with our partner, the coastline melting into a pink-orange sunset; other times, we amble through our local park going nowhere in particular; still other times, we trek through groves of redwoods and Douglas fir to witness breathtaking panoramic views from the top of a bluff.  Ever since we evolved from the quadruped crawling of our toddler years, we’ve been putting one foot in front of the other.  But though walking serves the practical function of getting us from one point to another, it also possesses a profounder power to reinvigorate the mind and replenish the soul.  Thinkers throughout time have been avid walkers, from William Wordsworth (“The act of walking is indivisible from the act of making poetry: one begets the other,” he argued) to Henry David Thoreau (“The moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow,” he wrote in a journal entry dated August 19, 1851).  Something about the mechanical motion of lifting one foot and extending it front of the other makes it easier to hear the divine whisperings of inspiration.  After all, how many artists have met the muse on a meandering walk?  Beethoven took long, leisurely strolls with a pen and sheet music handy (excursions his biographer Anton Schindler believed “resembled the swarming of the bee to gather honey”) whereas Mozart noted that is was during promenades in the park that his ideas flowed most “abundantly.”  Throughout time, it seems, quiet country roads have been the site of revelation and epiphany.

A writer who can find holiness and exquisite beauty in the most overlooked, ordinary activities, Rebecca Solnit explores the creative, intellectual and spiritual benefits of walking in her 2000 masterpiece Wanderlust.  She begins by describing the mechanics of marching:  

“Where does it start?  Muscles tense.  One leg a pillar, holding the body upright between the earth and sky.  The other a pendulum, swinging from behind.  Heel touches down.  The whole weight of the body rolls forward onto the ball of the foot.  The big toe pushes off, and the delicately balanced weight of the body shifts again.  The legs reverse position.  It starts with a step and then another step and then another that add up like taps on a drum to a rhythm, the rhythm of walking.  The most obvious and the most obscure thing in the world, this walking that wanders so readily into religion, philosophy, landscape, urban policy, anatomy, allegory, and heartbreak.”

Though in our practicality-preoccupied world, we measure a thing’s worth by its ability to perform a certain function (a coffee mug is only valuable, for instance, if it successfully fulfills its purpose of holding our bold black coffee— not if it delights us aesthetically), walking is valuable for reasons other than the purely practical.  While walking is useful in that it permits us to travel from point a to point b, it can take on more poetic, philosophical connotations if we sanctify our midnight strolls and saunter mindfully:

“Most of the time walking is merely practical, the unconsidered locomotive means between two sites. To make walking into an investigation, a ritual, a meditation, is a special subset of walking, physiologically like and philosophically unlike the way the mail carrier brings the mail and the office worker reaches the train.  Which is to say that the subject of walking is, in some sense, about how we invest universal acts with particular meanings.  Like eating or breathing, it can be invested with wildly different cultural meanings, from the erotic to the spiritual, from the revolutionary to the artistic.  Here this history begins to become part of the history of the imagination and the culture, of what kind of pleasure, freedom, and meaning are pursued at different times by different kinds of walks and walkers.”

“As one’s body wanders, so does one’s mind,” naturalist Walt McLaughlin once wrote, “The wilderness of the mind and the wilderness of oceans, forests, mountains, and deserts are inextricably entwined.”  Solnit agrees the landscape is less a literal place than a reflection of our own minds.  Strolling in the sultry heat of a summer twilight, we may traverse the exterior world, but we traverse our interior world as well.  As we walk away from the everyday familiarity of home, we walk into the uncharted, the unknown.  In strange lands, our thoughts take on strange new forms (even when this “strange” land is just around the block).  Suddenly we can abandon the linear route of rationality and follow the more winding path of instinct and free associative thought:  

“Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord.  Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them.  It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.

[…]

The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts.  This creates an odd consonance between internal and external passage, one that suggests that the mind is also a landscape of sorts and that walking is one way to traverse it.  A new thought often seems like a feature of the landscape that was there all along, as though thinking were traveling rather than making.  And so one aspect of the history of walking is the history of thinking made concrete — for the motions of the mind cannot be traced, but those of the feet can.  Walking can also be imagined as a visual activity, every walk a tour leisurely enough both to see and think over the sights, to assimilate the new into the known.  Perhaps this is where walking’s peculiar utility for thinkers comes from.  The surprises, liberations, and clarifications of travel can sometimes be garnered by going around the block as well as going around the world, and walking travels both near and far.  Or perhaps walking should be called movement, not travel, for one can walk in circles or travel around the world immobilized in a seat, and a certain kind of wanderlust can only be assuaged by the acts of the body itself in motion, not the motion of the car, boat, or plane.  It is the movement as well as the sights going by that seems to make things happen in the mind, and this is what makes walking ambiguous and endlessly fertile: it is both means and end, travel and destination.”

rebecca solnit

Later in Wanderlust, Solnit’s friend Sono’s truck is stolen from outside her West Oakland studio.  Though most people would call losing your car a catastrophe of the highest order, Sono views it as a blessing: forced to rely on her own two feet for transportation, she develops a more intimate relationship with her surroundings.  No longer alienated in the sterile leather interiors of an automobile, she feels connected to her vibrant Bay Area neighborhood like never before: 

“There was a joy, she said, to finding that her body was adequate to get her where she was going, and it was a gift to develop a more tangible, concrete relationship to her neighborhood and its residents.  We talked about the more stately sense of time one has afoot and on public transit, where things must be planned and scheduled beforehand, rather than rushed through at the last minute, and about the sense of place that can only be gained on foot.  Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors — home, car, gym, office, shops — disconnected from each other.  On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors.  One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.”

We live in an era obsessed with speed and efficiency.  Blockbuster bestsellers have titles such as “The One Minute Manager” and “The Checklist Manifesto”; magazine covers shout with headlines like “21 Tips to Become the Most Productive Person You Know!” and “Get More Done in 2 Days Than Most People Get Done in 2 Weeks!”; hundreds of apps offer systems for streamlining our schedules and monitoring every aspect of our lives from our diet to our sleep.  Ours is an age of life hacks and get-rich-quick schemes.  The worth of our days, we believe, is directly proportional to how much we achieve.  Time is money and an hour well spent is an hour in which we maximize our output to input.

The result?  We dart through our days at speeds that would shock men a mere century ago.  But why does it matter if we hurry at an accelerated pace?  Don’t we at least get more work done?  The problem with the hurried rate of modern life is we sacrifice idle moments for introspection.  “Good ideas come slowly,” Brenda Ueland reminds us in her soul-enlarging classic If You Want to Write.  Hyper-efficient, we’re so concerned with crossing items off our to-do lists that we leave virtually no time for good ideas to gestate and form:

“The multiplication of technologies in the name of efficiency is actually eradicating free time by making it possible to maximize the time and place for production and minimize the unstructured travel time in between.  New timesaving technologies make most workers more productive, not more free, in a world that seems to be accelerating around them.  Too, the rhetoric of efficiency around these technologies suggests that what cannot be quantified cannot be valued — that that vast array of pleasures which fall into the category of doing nothing in particular, of woolgathering, cloud-gazing, wandering, window-shopping, are nothing but voids to be filled by something more definite, more productive, or faster paced.  Even on this headland route going nowhere useful, this route that could only be walked for pleasure, people had trodden shortcuts between the switchbacks as though efficiency was a habit they couldn’t shake.  The indeterminacy of a ramble, on which much may be discovered, is being replaced by the determinate shortest distance to be traversed with all possible speed, as well as by the electronic transmissions that make real travel less necessary.  As a member of the self-employed whose time saved by technology can be lavished on daydreams and meanders, I know these things have their uses, and use them — a truck, a computer, a modem — myself, but I fear their false urgency, their call to speed, their insistence that travel is less important than arrival.  I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour.  If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.”

In an endearing moment of optimism and understated poetry, Solnit refutes the common misconception that city streets are grimy cesspools of violence and moral decay.  Instead of fish-netted prostitutes and switch blades, walking the streets of San Francisco, she most often meets old friends, amiable neighbors, and a magical white moon over the bay.  To walk a city street is to encounter many lovely little serendipities: you might chance upon a poster for an underground punk band you’ve been meaning to see or be handed a flier for a panel discussion on prison reform at U.C. Berkeley.  In our increasingly regimented lives, we become stagnant pools— suffocated by our regular schedule’s dull monotony.  Walking helps us rejoin the flow of life, the exhilarating stream of the unplanned and unpredictable:

“I have been threatened and mugged on the street, long ago, but I have a thousand times more encountered friends passing by, a sought-for book in a store window, compliments and greetings from my loquacious neighbors, architectural delights, posters for music and ironic political commentary on walls and telephone polls, fortune-tellers, the moon coming up between buildings, glimpses of other lives and other homes, and streets noisy with songbirds.  The random, the unscreened, allows you to find what you don’t know you are looking for, and you don’t know a place until it surprises you.  Walking is one way of maintaining a bulwark against this erosion of the mind, the body, the landscape, and the city, and every walker is a guard on patrol to protect the ineffable.”

vintage sf street

Solnit ends the introduction by returning to an earlier description of her own walk along a Sausalito hiking trail.  Much like Beethoven and Mozart, she finds the answers she seeks on long solitary strolls.  In this way, walking is both a pilgrimage of the body and a pilgrimage of the soul:

Suddenly I came out of my thoughts to notice everything around me again-the catkins on the willows, the lapping of the water, the leafy patterns of the shadows across the path.  And then myself, walking with the alignment that only comes after miles, the loose diagonal rhythm of arms swinging in synchronization with legs in a body that felt long and stretched out, almost as sinuous as a snake.  My circuit was almost finished, and at the end of it I knew what my subject was and how to address it in a way I had not six miles before.  It had not come in a sudden epiphany but with a gradual sureness, a sense of meaning like a sense of place.  When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities.  Exploring the world is one the best ways to explore the mind, and walking travels both terrains.”