COLLECTIVE SUFFERING, COLLECTIVE HOPE
WORDS: DANIEL POPE
IMAGE: KATE WEINER
My therapist tells me that I need to learn to separate the suffering of the collective from my own. She says I need to erect better borders. I guess I need to build a wall.
But everything returns to that collective experience. She tells me, You’re an ENFP, which means you draw grand connections between everything. Okay, I tell her, I thought I just did that because I’m me, and that’s what I did. These are categories, she tells me (really these are my words), but they’re useful. As long as we don’t take them as gospel.
Does this mean I have to stop listening to political podcasts at every waking moment during which I’m not occupied with another task? Yes, she says. Does this mean that at every break from any other activity, I shouldn’t immediately take to Twitter for more articles and further testimony to the grand collective outrage of those who share my political opinions? Yes, she said.
It’s because, she says, I’m too constantly tuned into the collective experience, I can’t tune it out. What do you see as the collective experience, right now? she asks. I say, I don’t know to what extent I can accept any immutable collective experience, but to the extent that I do, I don’t know, it’s pretty fucking bad. Exactly, she says. I say, Recently I’ve been thinking—well, actually I’ve believed this ever since I’ve become politically aware—that if you’re not depressed, angry, and miserable all of the time, you’re not paying attention. That’s reasonable, she says, but not a workable strategy for living.
So I’m an ENFP, and I don’t have sufficient boundaries between myself as an emotional being and the collective affect of those whom I consider my community in a vague way that stretches across time, space, and the internet. The precedent was set when I was living abroad in Buenos Aires, a foreigner in a foreign land, watching the election from afar. From pretty much the moment Trump was elected I was addicted to Twitter and political coverage on the internet. I blogged, a lot. Whether or not people read it or cared, I had shit to say.
But it set a tone. I stopped taking care of myself. Sometimes leaving the apartment seemed the only daily victory I could have. Otherwise, everything was suffering; attempting to enact change was Sisyphean, except that every time the boulder ran back down, it crushed another hundred thousand Iraqi civilians, or razed a few hundred abortion clinics, or leveled another rainforest. I rolled my eyes at the notion of self-care, because, to me, it so often bespoke a degree of disengagement that was unforgiveable.
I was wrong, of course. That was made abundantly clear when, because of a slew of aggregated personal crises, I almost lost my mind and had to find a therapist back in Seattle, where I now write. There’s a balance you need to strike, my therapist tells me. A balance between your attunement to a greater affective landscape (my words again) and taking care of yourself.
So I try to exercise, quit smoking and drinking so much, try to physically rewire my brain so that I don’t turn into a bloodthirsty psychopath every time I think about Henry Kissinger.
But isn’t this just hamster-wheel bullshit? I ask. Isn’t this self-care thing really just ignorance, a denial of the reality of suffering?
You can’t be serious, my therapist says, in my voice.
I’m trying to realize that there is more to an understanding of the world than a purely deterministic network of capital bent on destroying the world and our humanity. There are people living in these theoretical structures that cannot be captured or defined by them. There is a vibrant materiality, constantly pulsating and becoming new, that will always exist in excess of our categories.
In these excesses there still lies hope. In the capacity for human life to defy the rules it has set itself. We’re always greater than our words and theories; the latter are useful as categories until they inhibit our growth and understanding.
The solution is politics, meaning in grassroots networks of popular power that threaten governance, forcing those in charge to accept the will of the people. Convincing myself that it is impossible does nobody any good. And hurting myself to forget—or, more specifically, to elevate this thought into the defining structure of reality, to sink into its numbness—is counter-productive.
Part of what it took me to reach this conclusion was to actually show up to an activist meeting. After the election, thousands of people joined the DSA—Democratic Socialists of America—and I include myself in that number. At the DSA meeting, it was clear that the Seattle chapter was a very new group. There weren’t that many procedural rules yet established. Working groups, organized under issues like “education” and “anti-racism” and “environmentalism,” reported back on their progress thus far—not too much. At one point, people ended up shouting over each other and arguing over the wording of the chapter’s 10-point program.
But, as one member assured us, “We should be proud. Arguing over language is the most leftist thing possible.” Everybody laughed at this. And I, moreover, finally saw, with my own eyes, a community of activists committed to organizing against the horrors of the Trump presidency to come. Seeing them and speaking with them, shouting with them, made me realize, again, that this is where it all starts—here. In the community. And without the networks of support that we call communities—networks that capital, in its endless thirst for world domination, actively disrupts and tears apart—there is no fight.
With them, there’s a chance, and there’s hope. There’s a collective vision. There is utopia, which is a necessity for enacting positive change. Most importantly, there are people you can rely on, and who can rely on you in turn. Screaming into the depths of the internet—no matter how many likeminded people validate your comments or tweets or blog posts—isn’t the same.
My therapist tells me—or do I tell myself?—that every belief is a decision. My belief that it is better to suffer in knowledge than be happy in ignorance is a decision to create that dichotomy and destroy the nuance of what it truly means to be alive. My self-isolation was a decision to deny possibility.
In isolation, you feel the suffering of the collective, but none of its warmth.
These are my words. These are my words, but I offer them up, hoping we can make them ours.