After Empathy by SarahGrace Gomez

The old-school leftist Department of Labor employee looked at me while I made his Old Fashioned and said, “our time is over, it’s up to your generation to fix this.” Justice Kennedy had just announced his retirement. Leftists and liberals were swallowing the reality of another Trump nominated Supreme Court Justice. “Oh shit” loomed in the air. So, I stood behind my bar calculating my student loans, my rent, the current fight for a living wage, for a restaurant worker’s union. I thought about the master’s diploma on the top of my bookshelf, the scratchy collar of my Staff Shirts Direct brand, black button-up, and the beer key in my back pocket. This is familiar, I thought. I think I’ve read about myself on The Onion. I nodded at the kindly old-school leftist in meek agreement. Up to us. Christ, but I am so tired.

On one hand, it is rare to get an admission of guilt from Baby Boomers who often devalue and scapegoat those who were born after them. I don’t need to rehash the These Darned Millennials narrative. I think we’re all sick of screaming into a void of near-retirees sticking their fingers in their ears while they cry over Applebee’s. On the other, it is irresponsible to give up culpability like that. He was a very nice man, and in a weird way I appreciate his sorrow. It was earnest, and I could see it in his eyes. But his time is not over. Because he is not dead. Now isn’t the time for anyone to abdicate responsibility. Our political reality is spiraling out of control—it’s sort of an all hands-on deck kind of situation. I remember ending the night so angry that this man had vacated all ownership of the world around him. I realize now I was projecting a little bit. His resignation is the very thing I have been trying to study through these essays on empathy exhaustion, and it’s the same thing I experience. I’m just as tired as he is, and I recognize the lost will to keep showing up, standing up. Maybe I’m so mad at him because I sat down too.

 So far in this blog series, I have done a lazy job of laying out Empathy as a critical concept for activists, and how the work we do often robs us of the emotional energy required to keep up that same work. Up to this point, all I have been able to determine is that activist communities know we are exhausted, but we’re not quite sure what to do about it. Major Depressive Disorder diagnoses are on the rise in 2018, with young people being especially vulnerable to a national trend of depression and anxiety. Psychologists have termed “Trump Anxiety Disorder” and warn that it’s trending almost as much as the POTUS’ tweets. At the same time that America monitors increased rates of depression and anxiety, the rate of youth involvement in politics is also on the rise.

So, what is the relationship between involvement and anxiety? I can say something here about ignorance and bliss, and the ethical obligation to participate in social justice, and you might know what I’m getting at. The stakes are high-- for many of us what is on the line is our life. Poor folks, people of color, women and trans folk are especially vulnerable as we witness neo-fascism flourish in the United States.  Dr. Ruthy Wilson Gilmore called it Premature Death.  When you’re fighting for your life, you’ve got to be aware of what you’re up against, and that knowledge of racism and capitalism, and the sociopolitical schema of this country is exhausting. “Nevertheless, [they] persisted” is a great call to arms, but it doesn’t provide the kind of emotional support necessary to being persistent. That is a kind of fortitude we are demanding without actually nurturing.

At the same time as we require sustained activism in the face of current events, we must confront the affective reality in which we find ourselves. In Richmond Virginia alone, violent crimes have increased threefold since last year, and the mass shooting tracker –possibly the most dystopic thing I’ve looked at on the internet today--would suggest that’s concurrent with a national increase in mass shootings and gun violence more broadly. In the time it has taken to edit this post, Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice, despite multiple allegations of sexual assault. President Trump apologized to him on behalf of the country, neglecting all of us who were reminded that if you’re not a white man, you have no clout in this country. I don’t think many of us were actually sorry, asshole. Congress passed another few trillion-dollar cuts to social services. People die because they can’t afford insulin. Honduran refugees are currently fleeing American-backed warfare. A white supremacist murdered eleven people at a Pittsburgh synagogue. Danye Jones was lynched, another beautiful boy. As someone who spent a lot of her academic career studying the apocalypse, this is what I was talking about. If you’re not angry, if you aren’t afraid, then you’re benefiting from these systems, and you should be ashamed. You are an enemy of equity.

I’ve spent three months trying to write this and I’ve struggled to organize my thoughts because every single day, we witness the deliberate dismantling of freedom. It is hard to keep up when the things you’re fighting for are threatened and flat out robbed from you. It’s most hard to stomach when those in power who forsake their people tell us that this is in fact in the name of freedom. It has been decades of that rhetorical bullshit and I just can’t take it anymore. I lost the will to respond. That’s pretty discouraging for someone who has always used writing to fight back. Even before we got a hashtag, I was writing about rape culture and how assailants are protected and given access to positions of authority and respect. I was writing about college sports back then, and four years later we are having the same conversation about a judge.  Re-reading Professor Anita Hill’s recent op-ed a few days after Kavanaugh is sworn is heartbreaking. We did it again. We haven’t stopped.

This is an American timeline of progress and retrenchment. Nonlinear movement of short-lived rights and access being retracted, erased. “Great Again” is ahistorical, temporal anomaly, critical error.

 I feel my exhaustion creep up the muscles in my neck, tensing my shoulders while I stock my bar and make garnishes. I feel it in the small of my back, crackling nerves wrapped around my spine. I see it in the sallow skin around my mouth, in the darkness under my eyes, in them. I am tired, and I am pissed off, and my body doesn’t do well when that indigestion froths over. It’s hard to keep fighting when you can count your losses easier than you can cling to victory. After empathy, there is anger. And I am searching for some way to harness the fire lapping at my heart.

What is hope?

Years ago, at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, there was a Sean Landers text-based piece in a larger exhibition called This Is Killing Me. “L’ego My Ego” is a map of Landers’ creative process-- a narrative of segmented thoughts with arrows pointing to corresponding ideas. It looks like the first outline to my thesis, with meandering tidbits of information that are innocuous and integral all at once. On the left side of the canvas, the line “I’m not sure of anything” is printed, all-caps, three times as large as the memories written around it. An arrow curves up and points to “But I have a lot of hope for something” which stands out just as large. I’ve carried a print of the piece for ten years. I post it on my social media, where “I’m Not Sure Of Anything” and “But I Have A Lot Of Hope For Something” are circled in red Sharpie. These are the two lines that made me finish undergrad. They’re what shot me into Boston for grad school. I think them every time I sit down to write, and when I take my activism out onto the streets. And they are what I need to remember when I’m too exhausted to show up. That is why we work, write, create, fight. For the something we cannot quite name. That is what hope is: The Infinite What If.

When the empathy runs thin, it’s What If We Lose. When I am recharged, it’s What If We Succeed? What if we reach equity? What if people of color are no longer disproportionately affected by state violence? What if workers are properly compensated for their labor? What if queerness is no longer vilified? What if? I don’t know what that world would look like, but I want to find out. I’m not sure of anything, but I have a lot of hope for something.

This is election week. There are 35 congressional seats up for re-election, and just two of them could shift a government that has enacted the violence we rally against every single day. At least, that is the hope. I’m not versed in electoral politics, and I won’t regurgitate the statistics that our best-informed friends share with us on Facebook. But I will say this:

Yes, we are tired. No, it hasn’t gotten any better. Nothing I can say will be for certain. I don’t know what’s going to happen, or if we can turn the tide. Most of the time, I don’t think we have much of a choice but to endure these dark times. But on Tuesday, we do have a choice, and it is the closest thing we’ve got to a chance. For one day, I can do one tiresome thing. I can stand up and put my shoes on one more time. I am awake enough to make this one political act. I am willing to exert the energy in the hope that maybe on Wednesday, I won’t be as tired. That I will be galvanized to keep fighting every day after.

 The only way to find out What If, is if we show up.