A black man in viral video shot near the site of riots and looting this week passionately exhorts his son, “What you see right now: It’s gonna happen 10 years from now. And at 26, you gonna be doing the same thing I do! You understand that? 10 years! You gonna be right here too! So what I need y’all to do right now! At 16! Is come up with a better way. ’Cause how we doing it, it ain’t workin’!”
The pain of this moment is not simply about the injustice of this moment. It is compounded like vicious interest by the knowledge of how much desperate struggle has taken place since such injustice was first recognized, only to see it repeat itself, nearly unchanged, in the present day.
The script is almost the same in 1968 and 2020: White authorities and criminals unjustifiably kill black people and face paltry consequences if any. Blacks and allies demand justice and are stonewalled and criticized. Violence flares and becomes the narrative; armed enforcement cracks down. It’s bad enough taken on its face. It’s almost unbearable in the light of all of the struggle for progress from then to now.
The same flavor of frustration and despair, in a less existential dose, was present in a “Scrupling Session” called by my congregation over the weekend on the subject of “What can we do?” and conducted by Web meeting. About 40 of us showed up, guided by a reading of Rev. Adam Lawrence Dyer’s piece “What Can I Do?” One by one we spoke our piece. Most of us were white, and many were old enough to have taken part in protest movements of the 1960s. The grief and sense of futility were palpable. There must, everyone seemed to be saying, be a better way.
In times of agony, it is extremely difficult to gain centered perspective and ask, unburdened, “What is working and what is not?”
Even to do that requires access to a faith that this moment is not the only moment. Entailed in that faith is the faith that my lifetime is not the only lifetime, and hence my survival is not the greatest possible good. If I can remain concentrated long enough, I can even perceive the implication that the survival of anything or anyone I “have” or hold dear is not the greatest possible good.
The truth is that we already know the better way. We celebrate its occasional heroic exemplars like Buddha and Jesus and Gandhi, who managed to remind more people of it than most while they were alive and through their followers thereafter. But remind is what they did, because the better way is already written in all of our hearts, along with the worse one. Which is why the two have kept competing with each other throughout our history, and why the better one has never fully and permanently won out.
So many of us are so sincerely aching for the progress we make to endure — to be actual progress instead of simple vacillation. Our ache is the ache of an unbearable moment, and the only way out of it is to bring ourselves out of the moment and attain that centered perspective. Like wayfinding in a storm, we must energetically tend our boat to survive, but we must also manage to look up at the stars if we want to end up any closer to where we want to go.
Our very biology makes attaining this perspective difficult, because it has evolved to help us survive moments of threat, not to achieve millennia of peace. And yet, of all species, ours has evolved toward the latter.
Prosociality is the ability in members of a species to seek the good of their direct relatives independent of their own. It is an evolutionary advantage, not in moments, but over days and weeks, because greater good in the family provides for greater individual good over time. Hyperprosociality is one step further, the ability to seek the good of any member of your own species, directly related or not. Precisely one species on earth has evolved it as a trait, and at least in one theory this adaptation enabled its domination of the planet.
I bring this up for the sake of perspective, to show that the type of evolution our anguish calls us to now is not impossible or fantastic. We’ve done it already.
Because the better way we are desperate for, the one that sticks with the progress we make and doesn’t let it deteriorate, is an evolution of this same type. In the ancient past, we evolved our empathy outward by one degree — from our own family to our own species. Now we must outward it forward in time by one degree — from the present, urgent struggle to our day-to-day lives.
We must evolve from a species that painstakingly builds progress over years but tears that progress down in a moment into one that sustains progress by nature. That means a daily — really, a constant — discipline of justice, inculcated in ourselves and educated in our children, until it perpetuates in our DNA.
And since any hope of doing this depends on a common understanding of what justice is, let me add that we all know that too: We all know it because we know how bad it feels to be hit. We all get to agree on that. Violence itself is our common enemy, no matter in what guise it appears, or who perpetrates it, or when.
The discipline needed to evolve us in the only fashion that will address our present anguish is the discipline of neutralizing violence within ourselves before it can externalize and spread. And yes, MLK already told us this. Jesus of Nazareth told us this; Buddha told us this. All they were doing is reminding us, and that’s all we need to do for ourselves now. Because it’s not like we don’t already know.
The reason we have never sustained such a practice until it becomes evolutionary, so that it endures past the Enlightenment of the 1700s or the Civil Rights movement of the 60s or the Occupy movement of the 2010s, is because we have always felt the need to survive the moment we were in, and that survival has seemed to call for violence. To date, occasional martyrs have shown us that it is not so: Individual survival is not the greatest good. Clan survival is not the greatest good. If we are anguished by our failure to sustain progress, we must want a greater good than these, and we must be willing to forego our violence, and almost certainly our own survival, to get there.
In a few generations of increasingly sustained self-discipline, with humanity purging violent impulses in ourselves, teaching our children, and being willing to sacrifice our existences (which were mortal anyway) rather than adding any more violence back into the world, things could be different. I believe humanity could achieve a state in which violence (of thought, word, and deed) would be, not impossible, but harder to engage in than not to. Imagine the urge to punch Derek Chauvin or shout a racial epithet being as rare and weird as the urge to walk on all fours.
In a sense it’s like a species-wide “marshmallow test,” of the type in which a child is given a marshmallow and told they can eat it now or wait 10 minutes and be given a second one to eat. We can have our present-day species’ existence, in which we end up killing each other a lot of the time but not all of the time, or we can sacrifice that existence for a while so that our grandchildren’s grandchildren need never fear war or racism or rape. We may not be willing to take that way forward, but we should not deceive ourselves into thinking there is none or that we don’t know it already.