This is a chapter from The Way of the Heathen: Practicing Atheism in Everyday Life. I wrote it at an upsetting time: writing it helped me somewhat, and I hope it helps some of you.
I’m trying to make peace with permanent struggle.
I’m trying to make peace with the idea that, in almost every struggle I care passionately about, I am going to live the rest of my life without winning. The day I die there will still be hatred of women, disgust for queers, contempt for black people, revulsion for trans people, pointless poverty, grotesque inequality, stinking rich people who don’t give a damn about any of it as long as they’ve got theirs. I’m trying to make peace with the idea of survival as victory; the idea of harm reduction; the idea that shoving the world into a slightly better place, even a slightly less shitty and unlivable place, is a form of winning. I’m trying to let go of the entire idea of winning.
I’m obviously doing a lousy job.
I’m trying to make peace with how much of our progress isn’t really progress, so much as it is digging our way out of a hole. So much of progress means alleviating suffering, righting inequalities, pushing back against bigotry and hatred and brutality, which should never have been there in the first place. So much of progress isn’t building something new: it’s building a level foundation. It isn’t adding positive numbers: it’s struggling to get to zero. I’m okay with the idea of permanent struggle — well, no, obviously I’m not, but I’m beginning to see okay on the horizon. I am profoundly not okay with how much of the struggle is such a fucking waste of time. Of course the work is worth doing: the foundation is wildly uneven, there are a fuck-ton of holes to dig out of. But we shouldn’t have to do it. We wouldn’t have to do it if we didn’t have a terrible history, and if people weren’t terrible so much of the time. I’m trying to make peace with how much we could all build, how high we could all climb, if so many of us weren’t digging out of these pointless, poisonous, unnecessary holes — and if so many others weren’t digging more holes, digging deeper holes, so they can live high on the pile of dirt and bodies.
I’m trying to make peace with how much time and energy and resources we spend convincing people just to give a damn. The world would be so much better if everyone cared just a little more, maybe five percent more they do. I’m trying to make peace with how few people are willing to do even that.
I’m trying to make peace with the idea that struggle sometimes means working with people I don’t like, people I have profoundly serious problems with, people I think are a little despicable. It sometimes means letting go of people I once cared about, people I still care about, people I have a rich history with, people I admired, people I loved. Sometimes it means ugly compromise, and sometimes it means ugly bridge-burning, and I do not have anywhere near enough wisdom to know the difference. So much of this struggle is the struggle with myself to learn the difference, and I will be struggling with it the rest of my life. And I’m trying to make peace with the fact that no matter which choice I make, there will always be people ready to judge me for making the wrong one, for taking a stand when they would have compromised, or for compromising when they would have taken a stand.
I’m trying to make peace with the fact that, no matter how far we push things in the right direction, we will still have to struggle — because there will always be people pushing things back. We gained ground and lost it so many times; so much of our work now is regaining that lost ground; and all my good work could be undone in a generation.
I’m trying to make peace with the fact that there will always be people who benefit from being selfish, heartless, willing to ignore suffering. Whatever structures we build for justice, there will always be people looking for loopholes, ways to game the system to their advantage. And they aren’t just cackling villains or the one percent. Human nature is selfish as well as selfless, callous as well as compassionate; we are all scared, self-protective, rationalizing, too willing to say, “Screw you, Jack, I’ve got mine.” So much of our history records the battles between our better natures and our worse ones. The struggle for justice is a struggle against human nature — so it will always need to be fought. Permanently. Forever.
I’m trying to make peace with all the ways I’m part of the problem. My comfort is built on other people’s suffering; cheap food, cheap consumer goods, plentiful energy, all at the cost of other people’s grotesquely exploited labor, at the cost of pouring garbage into the oceans and the air. For all the dozens of ways that I’m living in holes, clawing my way out and having dirt poured on my head at every turn, there are dozens of ways I won the lottery the day I was born — a lottery that was funded by beating people into the ground and taking their money. No matter how careful I am, there is no way to completely disengage from the systems that benefit me at other people’s expense. The only way to never hurt anyone is to never engage with anyone, to be a hermit and forage for nuts and berries. And I’m trying to make peace with the fact that I don’t want to make peace with this. Causing pain and shrugging it off is exactly the thing I’m struggling against. If I’m going to be the person I want to be, I will always question my compromises, doubt my motives, wonder if I could have done better.
I’m trying to make peace with the idea that, even if we miraculously created a democratic socialist utopia with no poverty, brutality, bigotry, or inequality of opportunity, and even if this utopia miraculously had no terrible people trying to push things backward for their own gain, there would still be suffering. There will always be illness, injury, conflict, fire and flood, earthquake, irretrievable loss, death, grief. And even in the best of lives, there are no happy endings. I made peace a long time ago with the fact that life always ends in death, and death is real and final. I am trying to make peace with one of the things this means — that a human life is always a story with a sad ending.
I don’t know if this is hard because I’ve lived my whole life in the U.S., and so many of my country’s stories are about winning and happy endings. I don’t know if it’s just that human minds are wired to see life as a narrative, a story with a beginning and a middle and an end, and it’s hard to see the struggle as a never-ending story, a tale that began centuries before we were born and will continue to be told centuries after we die. I don’t know why it’s so hard. I’m just trying to make peace with it.
At the 2015 American Atheists convention in Memphis, Anthony Pinn gave a talk on what the atheist movement could learn from hip-hop. As he so often does, he said something that strongly resonated, something I chewed over for months, something I wrote this piece in direct response to. As he put it in an email afterwards: “We do what we can where we can, knowing that oppression is weblike in nature. The proper posture is one of perpetual rebellion against injustice.”
The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. The price of justice is permanent struggle.
There is this odd way that permanent struggle brings a degree of peace. Trying to “win” the struggle for justice — trying to navigate by the non-existent light at the end of the tunnel, groping our way toward a non-existent promised land — brings a terrible sense of frustration and failure. Letting go of that impossible dream means we can take satisfaction in our small achievements, in the harm we’ve reduced. We can be smarter about the struggle, make better decisions about short-term goals versus the big picture. And when we don’t win, when we aren’t perfect, when we don’t see our way or any way, it’s not because we aren’t good enough. The fact that I’m not winning, that the people I’m fighting alongside are not winning, doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with us. The reason we’re not winning is that winning is impossible — and winning is not the point.
And there’s a degree of peace in seeing my work as part of something bigger, a link in a chain. There is peace in being one more descendant of Sisyphus, pushing that rock upward, passing wisdom and experience to the next generation of rock-pushers. There is peace in knowing that without our struggle, the rock would always be at the bottom, grinding people into the ground.
I’m trying to make peace with all of this. I’m beginning — maybe — to see okay on the horizon.