Before the pandemic, my adult identity hinged on two things: being a teacher, and being a writer. There’s a long list of reasons why defining yourself solely by your profession(s) is a bad idea, but the work that I did for love and money informed the way that I interacted with society at large. Then, last March, the pandemic cast its pall over the entire world, bringing the school year to a screeching halt, and I became too anxious and too depressed by turns to even consider putting words on a page. How long can I call myself a teacher if I am not teaching? How long am I a writer if I am not writing?
Purpose in the pandemic
Luckily, I had very little time to dwell on those questions. Both teaching and writing left me with too much month at the end of my money, and I’ve been juggling a part-time job as a home-care worker at the local nursing home.
Home-care work is something I like and am good at, but it was never a core part of my identity before the world went sideways. Suddenly, the nursing home was the center of my universe, giving me human interaction, a reason to get out of the house, and most importantly, a purpose. Having people to comfort and care for kept me grounded in a world where everyone else I knew suddenly became little better than prisoners of their own home, as disease ravaged whole countries.
But there are limits on how much balm purpose can provide. Doing work—even necessary, important work—still left me exhausted at the end of the day, alternately crying and screaming into my throw pillows when I poured myself onto the couch after a 12-hour shift. Work couldn’t save me from waking up in a panic with the sheets twisted around my ankles from another night of restless sleep. But I have learned some necessary humility.
Repetition and empathy
Teachers are endowed with a natural authority, and writers are the gods of the fictional universes we create, but caregiving requires removing your ego. Serving another person’s needs and respecting their autonomy requires mastering a finely tuned balance. There’s a soothing repetition to providing others with the necessities of daily life. No matter how adept I am at helping people bathe or preparing their meals, it’s inevitable that all evidence of my good work will be undone within a day, if not hours. Everything I do once, I must be prepared to do twice, three times, a hundred times.
The actual process is tedious and wears on me, but the time is spent in the company of a kind elder who tells me I’m pretty (even at my most bedraggled), and the result is fellow human beings who are happier and healthier than they were when I arrived.
The compassion I have for those I serve has been a saving grace, because it’s the bright spot that keeps me from despair. I have been angry at so many systems in our society for so long. Quarantine amplified that anger. And that was before Memorial Day.
In June, nationwide protests against racism and police brutality reignited the fiercest civil-rights movement we’ve seen in a generation, and the resulting actions, petitions, and donations are still happening, even if the national news is no longer giving the movement the attention it deserves. The COVID summer sparked the anger brewing in the US for years, and shut-downs meant that people finally had time and energy for fighting injustice.
By July, all but the seasoned activists had already burnt out.
Anger, especially righteous anger, is a raw and powerful emotion. Enough anger can catapult the world far faster than Archimedes’s proverbial lever. The anger of the nation is justified—innocent people are losing their lives to a system that was corrupt from its inception, and many Americans justify the slaughter. We’re living in a period that will define the 21st century for future generations. But our anger is not going to see us through to the other side.
Where anger fails
Anger is exhausting. It consumes everything in and around us, and always demands more fuel. Injustice and tragedy stoke the flames, but we are burning out our own cause. However badly we want to sign the petition or attend the march that turns back the tide of white supremacy in America now and forever, no single effort is enough, and being angry isn’t enough.
The fuel that drives the revolution forward will have to be assertive, radical compassion. It’s not the anger at the oppressors that will change the world, but love for the oppressed. It is taking action that will be done and undone ad infinitum. Everything we do in the service of dismantling white supremacist systems will have to be done once, twice, three times, a hundred times.
We have to embrace that the revolution will, at times, be tedious. That the work will wear on us, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally too. We will fail and fall, and learn lessons that knock us down and expose the biases we—particularly those of us who are white—still have to dismantle in ourselves. We will suffer exhaustion and insomnia in equal measure. We will grow to hate the process.
This is where anger fails. Anger plus burnout equals abandonment. If our love for the people we’re fighting for doesn’t outweigh our frustration with the process, we will simply be a blip on the news every few years while nothing of substance is achieved. We have to commit to a compassionate revolution.