A group of us gathered yesterday in the office lounge. It felt important that we sit together to acknowledge the murders so prominently part of the news and the turmoil it stirred up in each of us. Our gathering was reminiscent of the Quaker-style Meetings I grew up with, complete with long stretches of silence, a certain solemnity, and an occasional sober speaking-up. We gathered because we were, among other things, outraged, sorrowful and perplexed about what else to do.
I’ve long been of the view that poets, rather than ordinary mortals, best describe feelings. James Richardson says, “Feelings are like that: choral, not single; mixed, never pure.”* To be human is to have mixed feelings; to be grown-up is to tolerate ambiguity.** Part of our conversation is about the odd tension forced on us between supporting law enforcement while still deeply mourning the black motorists who had been murdered. We reassure each other that it is possible to do both. Even as we feel an urge to act, we express caution about doing or saying something wrong or worse, creating inadvertent offense. Fury tangles with sadness, condemnation with guilt over our own inaction. Fear features prominently in our reactions. When all lives matter, there is pull against “Black Lives Matter;” we wrangle with the question of how it took social media to bring some of these images to the forefront of our horrified awareness.
Even as we draw strength from each other, most of us are left a little disconsolate, with the murky sense that the racial fractures in our country are too long-held and deep to ever be repaired.
Pondering this intractable set of issues can steal our optimism. When I lived in Salt Lake City, Utah, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I was an AIDS educator and activist. It’s hard to fully describe the trauma and drama of those early years in the HIV pandemic to someone who wasn’t on the front line. Only a comparative few of us seemed to be paying attention. It felt like the most impossible path to get policy changes in place. For many years the straight community seemed to turn their collective back. It seemed like everything was a fight: getting HIV education in the schools, building tolerance in the local churches; generating awareness in the mainstream voting block, getting money for AIDS research.
During the first six months of my time volunteering for the fledgling Utah AIDS Foundation, the five “buddies” I’d been partnered with all died. We worked with the local hospice community and could do little besides sit by deathbeds. Before I moved to New York City in 1994, a colleague and I sat down and totted up the number of memorial services from the prior months. There were seventeen of them in ninety days. We knew every single name.
Now, of course, it’s almost impossible to explain the profound pain of these years to the young gay men in my circle. They laugh at my panic when I hear about anyone being casual about safe sex. Our “old-school” experience as almost surreal in these days of speedy test results, preventative medication and maintenance drugs that make life with HIV nearly as manageable as diabetes. The churches that resisted us with self-righteous homophobia? They are proud supporters of HIV/AIDS programs today. Funding from the politicians we regarded as self-righteous and smug? HIV/AIDS research and education is almost a mainstream budget line in most states now.
This is a imperfect analogy, but thoughts of those years—hard times featuring outrage, tears, and dogged persistence against what felt like an impossible set of obstacles—give me strange comfort today. I was the wedding officiant at a joyful same-sex wedding in June, 2013, the same week that DOMA was repealed. I have several friends who treat their HIV with daily medication and they plan to live long, fruitful lives. Sometimes I’m simply stunned at the assumptions young people make about their health and bite my tongue lest I sound like a cranky old timer telling stories about the bad ol’ days. But I understand it and am grateful that they can afford this level of serene oblivion. While I’m aware that there is still much to do, much of what I see today would’ve seemed as far-fetched and unlikely as science fiction twenty-five years ago.
I’m wrestling with this point: We can change. We can do something about what seems like a disaster. We can build a world where healing is possible. We can solve intractable problems. It will take hard work and action. It will take courage and mistakes and hopelessness and sorrow. We will throw up and give up and complain and sob.
But we will get to work and fix this. Because we have to. Lives depend on it.