It is easy to feel despair. The folks who keep disparaging those who worry about the future of democracy seem uninterested in the fact that one party refuses to accept election results, inflames election violence, admits the entire plan is one-party rule, and brushes off and even jokes about vigilante violence. Those same people have been adept at pushing us into semantic arguments about whether we’re using the right words to describe what we see happening right before our eyes. The problem with wasting our time fighting about whether the best word to use in this particular situation is “authoritarianism,” or “fascism,” or “vigilantism,” or “lawlessness,” is that such things can often only ever be empirically established in retrospect. We can hold the I Told You So Olympics in 10 years. Let’s get that on the books.
Call it whatever you like, but this speedy descent into a world in which people who are fundamentally unethical and unserious hold too many levers of power is not normal and it’s not funny. Even for the people striving to find meaning and purpose in the ugliness, the temptation to cede ground, give up, and go small is alluring. That they want you to cede ground, give up, and go small is in fact the problem we can name right now.
My rabbi recently reminded me of a useful way to think through the fog. Citing another spiritual hero last weekend, Aurora Levins Morales, she reminded me that there is always a difference between the weather and the stars. Morales, teaching in 2017, warned that it is too easy to be buffeted by the changeable weather, and in so doing, to lose sight of the immutable stars. The stars, in this telling, are a “constant to steer by, sometimes hidden by storm clouds, but high above them, untouched by wind or rain.”
The weather is different. Weather, Morales conceded, can be “violent, drenching, harsh.” But it isn’t constant. If we do nothing but chase and feel the weather, she wrote, “we could spin forever from emergency to emergency, shouting no to each new crime—but that would be steering by chasing clouds.”
Morales posited an alternative:
We need to step into the calm eye of the storm, and steer by the stars, to imagine in rich detail, the biggest, most delicious, satisfying, inclusive future that we can, a great flowering of human potential and wellbeing, project our hearts and minds into that future, and then spend our lives walking toward it, and each time the weather buffets us, wait for a glimpse of sky, find that bright point of light, and adjust our course.
I spent the week before midterm elections that could help determine the fate of democracy in the United States trying to pick my own way through a careening mess of the world into those buckets: Weather versus star. Elon Musk is weather; so is Marjorie Taylor Greene. Tucker Carlson is weather. Even losing tens and thousands of followers on Twitter is, respectfully, just weather. It all matters, sure, and it’s all painful. But it’s a series of transient states to distract you from what is real.
Stars are the things that don’t ebb and flow with the showy Twitter feuds, or the mutable hourly outrages, or public performances of ghastly daily mediocrity. For some of us, the stars are the upcoming elections and the extraordinary acts of voter registration, postcarding, election protection, and democratic engagement. For some of us the stars are the law, the rule of law, and the efforts to bring accountability for lawbreaking. For some of us the stars are efforts to build a tolerant, pluralist world in the face of rising racial and religious intolerance and xenophobia. Stars are and will always be caring for the orphans and the widows. People are doing good work everywhere. As Mr. Rogers would have advised, look for the helpers.
As we move through the frightening and destabilizing days to come, the weather will attempt to consume more and more of your time and attention and energy. Fascists will tweet more fascism to try to distract you from the impacts of their fascism. My entirely inadequate advice will remain unchanged: Sit in the foulness of the roiling storm and do your work, whatever that may be, and triangulate by the light of whatever star feels eternal to you. Take care of your family; they need you, and take care of your health. Take care of your community; it needs you, and take care of someone in your community who doesn’t know Twitter is even a thing. Vote. Help others vote. Register voters. Staff voter protection hotlines. Place your own body between someone unkind and someone vulnerable. Read a book. Help a kid. Give someone food and love and respect. Donate something you don’t use. Ask for help. Don’t give your time or attention to anything small enough to diminish you along with it.
We’re in the weather, and the temptation to do nothing but talk about the weather is fierce. But above and beyond there are still fixed and immutable values and principles and we must try as best we can to steer by those things instead.
As one of my own fixed stars, Aurora Levins Morales, urged us, and urges us still:
Don’t waver. Don’t let despair sink its sharp teeth Into the throat with which you sing. Escalate your dreams. Make them burn so fiercely that you can follow them down any dark alleyway of history and not lose your way. Make them burn clear as a starry drinking gourd Over the grim fog of exhaustion, and keep walking.
You won’t always be able to see them, but the stars are still there. And we will get through the storms ahead, even if we don’t yet believe it, because the storms are not the story. We are the story. Keep looking up.