On Community, Conflict, Compassion, and Courage

May 7, 2020

Have you noticed conflict around - and perhaps within - you these recent months? Maybe of the familiar global and national varieties, nightmarishly intensified? Or maybe you’ve been playing referee among a houseful of stir crazy youth, worrying and wondering about what kind of world they’ll inherit. Maybe, like me, you’ve found yourself navigating online social- and professional circles in which there’s a disorienting blend of shell shock, anxiety, disagreement, sorrow...gratitude, concern, love, hopefulness. They mirror my inner world: lots of opinions and a sense that many changes must come.

I rarely write messages to unknowable readerships, but was so compelled by recent conflict, both of the external and internal varieties.

Clashes among well-respected colleagues spoke to much of what I’ve been grappling with and felt frustratingly at a loss or afraid to adequately convey in my own circles. Their earnestly articulated sentiments simultaneously (re-)broke my heart and breathed some life onto an ember within it (Jungian psychologist and cantadora Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes about ‘el duende’ or the goblin wind that ignites ‘la chispa,’ the spark or elemental force of creativity). May we give thanks to those who, when our inner flame has nearly extinguished, kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.

For me, equal parts grief, worry, astonishment, indignation, the despair of futility, and a self-preserving numbness oftentimes cycle rapidly throughout the day; some days, one or another lingers, risking a stagnation I dread. Still, many moments do come when I find my way back to some semblance of hope, dabbling in a kind of cautious optimism. The cynic (the realist?) in me resists it; the wounded healer persists in seeking it out. We contain multitudes, right?

However, personal choices are required. Do I somehow put my body upon the infamous gears and levers of the machine (after all, what’s happening in our here-and-now absolutely must stop!)? Do I resign myself to a ‘business-as-usual(-as-can-be-expected)’ mentality (after all, I’ve got dissertation research to embark upon that I hope will do some modest measure of good and doesn’t that matter?)? Do I focus on learning how to accept death of all kinds because death is an undeniable fact of life and that’s resilience? Is there a middle path, even in a wildfire? Perhaps there’s some other way forward that I’m not yet perceiving through all the smoke...

There’s also the greater communal cacophony of human interaction and -evolution to consider:

  • the malignant quality of small everyday injuries to the mind and spirit, like the ways our voices are dampened by others (both with reasonable intentions and malicious ones);
  • the deeply moving care exhibited by those of us who come to the defense of others or of our important community-sustaining traditions and habits that’ve been threatened at a time some of us might need them most;
  • the justifiable concern among those of us who wonder whether continued emphasis on those familiar ways of being at this time might, in a lighter sense, appear a little tone deaf and, in a deeper sense, serve as an opiate for surface symptoms of an underlying disorder we see has not been substantively addressed;
  • the wrongfulness of innumerable, longstanding injustices and overt, heartbreaking failures to prevent harm to our most vulnerable communities across this country and planet;
  • the inspiration from many, many past and present acts of courageous creativity mothered by necessity, compassion, and by a crucial prioritization of the common welfare; and 
  • the urgency of a righteous anger struggling to birth social transformation...

These complex conflicts and contradictions are at once vitalizing and daunting for me as an emergent scholar and human being. They beg the question: how might we together envision a clear manifestation of the changes many of us are deeply contemplating and holding in troubled hearts, despite the myriad temptations and legitimate pressures to grin, hope for the best, and press on in the ways we’re most accustomed to? How can we simultaneously apply salve to our many wounds, nourish our depleted inner strength, meet immediate needs, lift one another up, cultivate our areas of expertise, and get down to the collaborative business of bending the proverbial ‘arc of the moral universe’ towards a recognizable justice?

In my view, it’d take many elements of our collective resources. Certainly, it’d take much transactive discourse, particularly the type that nurtures a courage steeped in compassion, that unifies our communities and inoculates them against outside assault and self-implosion.

...Then, there are those nontrivial logistical details of organizing, perhaps beginning with an outline of a suggested framework for action that centers issues of justice, human rights, and welfare. I hope you, dear reader, and I can be two among many who will take up the call, in one form or another, maintaining a genuine attentiveness to those among us who now find themselves homeschooling three children, facing impossible financial situations, laying awake at night hoping a loved one will recover from illness, or grieving loss.

I also hope that the discussions we have begun in these difficult moments not only continue, but bring about much-needed action that truly, meaningfully meets this moment.

In spacious solidarity,
Rose M. Cartwright, M.A.Ed.
Doctoral Candidate
School Psychology Program
Graduate School of Education
University of California, Berkeley