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One of my most favorite parts of humanity is that time and time again, across all cultures in all parts of the world, friends and neighbors come together during times of crisis to help each other. No one needs to organize it. It just happens. For more than 100 years we’ve had scholarly evidence that this is true. When times are hard, we are altruistic by nature.
We’ve all been a part of these impromptu communities: pitching in to help free a stuck car in a snowbank, consoling a crying stranger in a bar bathroom, holding vigil after a tragic death of a loved one. In war zones and in hurricanes and in quiet bedrooms, we are built to love each other especially when we most need to.
I firmly believe we are in one of those times right now, on a global scale.
For the first time in human history, we’re participating in a simultaneous recovery from a global tragedy in real time. After a year of Covid, decades of a climate emergency, and centuries of systematic exploitation of marginalized people we have reached The End.
This is The End of life as we know it, and The Beginning of what absolutely must be an era of empathy unlike any we’ve had the courage to create so far. We know we can’t stay on the path we’ve been going, and we don’t know where new paths will lead us. We’re in a liminal space — a new kind of trauma we don’t have a name for yet.
Krista Tippett recently explored this topic about what’s physically happening to our bodies in this pandemic. We are literally different people than we were a year ago.
All we have left is each other.
Yesterday, I got my first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. I’m now one of the 1.5% of adults in the world who’ve been at least partially vaccinated. Within a few hours after the dose I was able to realize how much anxiety and loss I had been holding on to — specifically, anxiety surrounding my ability to make plans for the future. I realized how much of a privilege this vaccine dose was, and all the hundreds of years of history and choices that were made to get this exact dose into my arm at this exact moment. It’s not an exaggeration to say that wars were fought so that this kind of thing could happen to me, a middle-aged white guy in a hospital in downtown Minneapolis, on a Saturday afternoon.
The mood in the room was celebratory, hundreds of people were being vaccinated from all races and backgrounds. At least two couples were locked in a minutes-long hug, crying. Multiple people were calling parents and loved ones to tell them about the unadvertised walk-in clinic. It felt like a miracle.
But of course not everyone has had this washing-over of joy, the chance to literally laugh in the face of death. Almost every single one of us has lost a loved one over the past year. All of our lives have been irrevocably changed. And as we speak, rich countries like the United States are hoarding vaccine doses while for the most-impacted people and places around the world, Covid death rates are still rising and frontline health workers haven’t even been offered their shots yet.
This isn’t altruism. It’s apartheid.
For the past few weeks, it seems like the news has switched back to disaster mode — mass shootings, the erosion of voting rights, the scourge of hate speech — the worst of racism, the worst of the world we must leave behind. And layered on top of all this are articles about how we’re inching closer to scientists’ worst case climate scenario where parts of the world become literally uninhabitable. So much has to change.
Crying together is the point.
Letting grief wash over you is the point.
Turning your back on a broken system and tearing it down is the point.
Walking a new path together in solidarity and love is the point.
That’s how we wake up, do what’s needed, and build a different world in the time we have left. That’s how we can change what’s possible.
Gun control is a climate issue. Voting rights is a climate issue. Racial justice is a climate issue. All of these issues are core to what the climate movement is today, and what is has been nurtured into becoming over hundreds of years of labor by women and men from every corner of the world.
These are climate issues because nothing else feels possible when your very personhood is at risk. We know how to do this work. We are built for it.
Ayana Johnson’s enormously important op-ed last summer helped me understand how important it is that all these movements come together in this exact moment to demand justice.
To build a world where everyone matters, where we won’t live in fear anymore, where we will live in partnership with each other and the planet we call home, we must enact comprehensive gun control. We must ensure every single person has the right to vote and strengthen our democracy. We must demand reparations for the descendants of slaves and give stolen land back to Indigenous people.
There is no reason that weapons designed to kill each other should exist. As long as we do, there will be lives that are ended too short, lights lost much too soon. People with dreams for a better world that never came true. In 2020, more people died from gun violence in the United States than in any other year in decades. We just didn’t hear about it.
When we hurt alone, when we grieve alone, that’s when despair creeps in. So we have to do it together, even though it may feel uncomfortable.
And we’ve got to change the entire system.
We can’t wait any longer.
Every day, every project, every revolution, is always imperfect. There will never be a “right” time. Ask for help. In this moment of transformation, someone will be there.
Inspired by Mary Annaïse Heglar, Dr. Johnson has this advice for how to get started:
About my relationship with Substack
This is my first full newsletter since the increasingly worrying issues with Substack’s abdication of protections for its trans writers began surfacing about 10 days ago. I’ve written about it a bit on Twitter already, but I want to say here as well that I’m considering my options for moving to a different platform — like many other writers have already done. I will continue to use this platform to stand up for marginalized voices and condemn hate speech.
If you’re a paid subscriber of The Phoenix and you’d like to have your money go directly to me instead of Substack, you can subscribe via Patreon here. I’ll even send you a custom sticker with The Phoenix logo if you want.