“It is forbidden to despair,” said Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, a 19th century Hasidic teacher who suffered from depression. I imagine him pounding his fist on a table in a dimly lit room, shouting those words to his demons.
Fifty years ago, TV screens flickered with images of policemen unleashing dogs on peaceful civil rights leaders and demonstrators, who were also brutalized, imprisoned and murdered. Forty years ago, Black Power movement leaders posed with guns and spoke of self-defense; white America panicked and had the “justice system” systematically and brutally get rid of them.
“What is this country coming to?”
“Why can’t we just be civil?”
“There will always be prejudice.”
Then the boys burned their draft cards to protest an unjust war, the girls refused to sit down and let them men take care of (mess up) things, the gays refused to climb into the back of a police van.
“There is no respect for anything anymore.”
“Our children are lost.”
That chaos turned the world upside down and a lot of things got better. Not easier, but better.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. went to jail, his home was bombed and his family was targeted. But he never stopped preaching about his dream. He could not afford despair, which is the thing that paralyzes hope, imprisons the soul, and does not set anyone free.
I am not going kumbaya. I am not naïve. The day after the Dallas shootings, I watched the governor of Texas talk about Texas exceptionalism, its way of life and its values (open carry, anyone?). He waved the state flag and told Dallas, “We’ll get past this.” As if “this” was a hurricane or a flood, for which there is no explanation. As if you could just clean up the blood and pretend not to know that the cause of that unnatural disaster was the wages of despair taken to a toxic extreme.
“If they keep on killing us, why not kill and be killed for a cause?”
“The NRA will never be defeated.”
There are no “two sides” to this story. Despair can be given no ground.
Listen to the voices of black women and black men telling the truth of their lives on every possible stage — virtual, viral, and face-to-face. Writing, blogging and reporting with passion and intelligence, anger and resolve, black men and black women are also making music and poetry that howls with pain and calls out injustice. White allies (we are legion) are with them, aching, marching and speaking out. We will not stand down, either.
“It is forbidden to despair” are fighting words.
If I were to get a tattoo (and that’s never gonna happen) I would make the message visible, so I would have to explain why despair is the great enemy that must be resisted at every turn.
It is forbidden to sit in the dark, to cluck your tongue and shake your head and say, woe is me.
After every setback and loss, Dr. King rose up. And as he predicted, even after they murdered him (with a gun), the dream did not die. Justice, justice we shall pursue.
Think of Rabbi Nachman, shouting at his demons, “I am forbidden to despair.”
Hope is a muscle. Optimism is a muscle. We’d better get in shape because we have a lot to do and long way to go.