What makes us keep going? In my 28 Days piece I wrote about the importance of showing up. But there is something about the relentlessness of the act, which can at times seem cruel. Implicit in this is the fear that nothing will change, that nothing will be achieved. Clearly there is a need for vision, a sense of direction, purpose and goals. But even then there are times when those things that were glimpsed can’t be seen and we’re just plodding on in the darkness.
The above can be applied to any situation: What about the families and supporters in Nigeria who still turn out daily to demand the return of over 200 girls kidnapped in Chibok long after the #bringbackourgirls Twitter campaign has died down? What about the people of Greece or Spain who have already endured years of austerity?
Having arrived in Madrid, I’m looking forward to the election, and appreciate the opportunity of a break at a time when life seems to be just about getting through the days, with nothing good on the horizon. I know I’ve got to make decisions and start to formulate some kind of response to the question ‘what do I want to do with my life?’ I’m trying to go with the advice I read about putting at least five per cent of my daily energy into the future, but at the moment I’m finding it difficult to think of the future as being anything other than bleak.
I was inspired reading Rowan Williams’ Orwell lecture about language and war, which focused on the writer’s task – which, according to Catholic writer and mystic, Thomas Merton:
…is not suddenly to burst out into the dazzle of utter unadulterated truth but laboriously to reshape an accurate and honest language that will permit communication … instead of multiplying a Babel of esoteric and technical tongues.
Writing has been very important to me in the past year as a place of refuge, a means of processing my ideas, often one of the best remedies for loneliness. it’s challenging, therefore to think of writing in a broader context of the role it might play in “making the reader pause and rethink” and “invites the reader to find new ways of speaking” which makes writing a political act.
Against the language of power, which seeks to establish a perfect self-referentiality, the writer opposes a language of “laborious” honesty. Instead of public speech being the long echo of absolute and unchallengeable definitions supplied by authority – definitions that tell you once and for all how to understand the world’s phenomena – the good writer attempts to speak in a way that is open to the potential challenge of a reality she or he does not own and control. When the military commander speaks of destroying a village to save it, the writer’s job is to speak of the specific lives ended in agony. When the agents of Islamist terror call suicide bombers “martyrs”, the writer’s job is to direct attention to the baby, the Muslim grandmother, the Jewish aid worker, the young architect, the Christian nurse or taxi driver whose death has been triumphantly scooped up into the glory of the killer’s self-inflicted death.
But while it is inspiring to think about the potential of writing, there is implicit in this paragraph and in the rest of the piece the fact that these are very dark times, and likely to become more so. And while it’s one thing to suffer difficult times, endure suffering, the question of motivation and ultimately, what you hope for is important. This question of vision is an important one, requiring thought about the kind of life we want, and the kind of life we want to live in.
But the question of what sustains our hope and what you do when it’s in short supply is one that perhaps needs more understanding of the role of doggedness.
In Courage and Resistance, the Oscar Ramero Award Keynote Address the writer Susan Sontag considers our motivation for doing what is right. The speech, which is published in At the Same Time, was delivered when Ishai Menuchin an Israeli soldier was awarded after he resisted service in the Occupied Territories on the basis that he would not to go into a space where illegitimate orders would be given. Such courage, she acknowledged would not resolve all the conflicts in the region. Instead, she argues, “it simply declares: enough. Or: there is a limit. Yesh gvul It provides a model of resistance. Of disobedience. For which there will always be penalties.”
Sontag also considers what might be done if evil appears unstoppable. “At least in the short run. And that short run may be – is going to be – very long indeed,” but insists that “the likelihood that your acts of resistance cannot stop the injustice does not exempt you from acting in what you sincerely and reflectively hold to be the best interests of your community”. And the true interests of a community, says Sontag, is justice. Again, this points to the need to rely on principles, rather than base our actions on the outcome, and to something that has inspired me this year – the possibility that the context in which we can best make sense of our lives is not an atomised, individualistic one, but rather outward looking, ‘other’ focused, collective.
The dramaturgy of “acting on principle” tells us that we don’t have to think about whether acting on principle is expedient, or whether we can count on the eventual success of the actions we have undertaken. Acting on principle is, we’re told, a good in itself. But it is still a political act, in the sense that you’re not doing it for yourself. You don’t do it just to be in the right, or to appease your own conscience; much less because you are confident your action will achieve its aim. You resist as an act of solidarity. With communities of the principled and the disobedient: here, elsewhere. In the present. In the future.