Fight with hope

A chance encounter with a retired longtime resident of Reno. White. Male. Maybe not affluent but at least financially secure.

“I suppose you support that criminal in Washington, D.C.,” he said.

I presumed he meant either Harry Reid or President Obama. I attempted a fire-extinguishing smile. No matter. He launched into a rant that included out-of-control spending, taxation, socialized health care and, of course, immigration.

“Do you think our tax dollars should go to keeping illegals in schools?” he said, enraged. “And when I call Nevada Energy, why should I have to ‘press one’ for English? This is America. Learn the language!”

I had to catch my breath, decide if I had the energy to engage. So much fear. So little hope. This unhappy guy was fretting over Glenn Beck-ish fears—Democrats, immigrants, Obamacare and young punks with no respect for history. I was inclined to feel judgmental, superior even.

But am I any different? Progressive activists aren’t renowned for gushing optimism. When arguing for change, we bullet-point our own fears: extreme weather patterns, corporate greed, military contractors … Glenn Beck.

It’s just as easy to become angry and confrontational or to sink into despair. In the title song of a 2007 album Fight with Tools, the activist hip-hop band Flobots asks: “What kind of person are you? Always the first to argue—or never down to stick your neck out ’cause it hurts you far too much.”

Anger and fear can’t be our only choices.

My search for hopeful activist “tools” led me to Stephen Fishman and Lucille McCarthy’s book John Dewey and the Philosophy and Practice of Hope.

American pragmatist Dewey (1859-1952) was best known, perhaps, for public school reform plans that never fully panned out. Undeterred, Dewey kept working, thinking and writing. From his books, Fishman and McCarthy derive three humanist strategies for hopeful activism.

The process begins with gratitude toward our ancestors and nature. Appreciation connects us to the physical world and to past revolutionaries and activists who’ve fought to make our lives better. Being thankful instills a sense of responsibility toward the planet and the people who’ll inherit what we pass along.

The second strategy involves the constant, intelligent evaluation of our goals and how we can reach them. Focus energy where it might make a difference. Be willing to discard strategies that don’t produce useful change. Be patient and open-minded enough to adapt and accommodate—again and again.

Finally, the authors argue for “enriched present experience as a source of unification.” That translates to living in the moment—but not with a careless “I don’t give a rat’s ass” nihilism. Instead, live deliberately in the present moment realizing that “now” grows out of the compost pile of the past. The choices and actions we make “now” fertilize future moments. Here’s Dewey: “We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. This is the only preparation which … amounts to anything.”

A running thread in Dewey: Seemingly small actions and decisions—whether considered or not, can have huge consequences. So take a minute to think about it.

Riding a bike, buying local, praising a friend, thanking a partner, smiling at a fight-picking stranger. Planting seeds where they’re likely to grow. Celebrating small victories, every green nub that pops out of the soil.

The Flobots advise,“We need heroes—build them. Don’t put your fists up—fill them. Fight with our hopes and our hearts and our hands. We’re the architects of our last stand.”