It is a chilling feeling to so fervently desire my enemy to prevail. My dry bones, scorched by four years of neofascist pyromaniac, are rising up to dance at the likely election of Joe Biden. Yet, my joy is strange because, for many of us on the political left, Biden represents a repugnant politics. Biden helped author the catastrophic crime bill, favors an incremental response to the impending doom of climate change and is a trusted ally of the military-industrial complex and Big Pharma.
Our only other real choice is a psychotic charlatan, who in fact was favored by nearly half the country. So, when I examine how thrilled I am that lesser evil probably beat a greater evil, my soul is unsettled. Can I really celebrate the gospel of oligarchic neoliberalism? For decades — centuries even — countless organizers have poured energy and creativity into resisting monsters and drafting the architecture of liberation, and yet after all that work, here we are … with a binary choice between the amphetamine of right-wing authoritarianism and the barbiturate of liberal consumer capitalism. It is enough to make one wonder: Why do we go on?
The philosopher Albert Camus, amid the carnage of the 20th century, presented this question of whether life is worth the effort in an unsettling way when he wrote in “The Myth of Sisyphus” that “There is only one really serious philosophical question and that is suicide.” Camus compares the struggle for living well with the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus, who was condemned to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down every time he nears the top. Camus’ haunting query may seem to be modern bourgeois ennui, but the conundrum of carrying on when faced with an impossible task is perennial and ancient. Sethe Suggs faces it in “Beloved,” the prince of Denmark faces it in “Hamlet” and Arjuna faces it in the “Bhagavad Gita.”
The question of how to go on is addressed in my favorite Biblical story: The prophet Elijah flees to the desert after he is persecuted; he hears God ask him what he is doing there. Elijah replies, “I’ve done everything you asked, tried my best to do what’s right, and still I’m hunted and all alone. I’m finished. Please, God, take my life.” God sends an angel with snacks and tells Elijah to eat, drink and take a nap. Soon after, God says, “Come out from your hiding because I’m going to pass by.”
Elijah then sees a hurricane, a wildfire and an earthquake before his eyes … but the scripture says God was not in these awesome powers. Then God comes to Elijah as “the sheer sound of silence.” Eventually, God says again, “What are you doing here?” Elijah repeats himself word-for-word, but leaves out the request for death. Elijah departs the desert, reenters the fray and takes a young upstart prophet under his wing as a mentee.
There may not be comforting answers or inspiring assurances that will give us peace and confidence when facing the impossible tasks of our time. Perhaps all we have is the choice to face the questions with honesty and to face them in community. And to remember to eat, drink and nap.
John Helmiere is the convener of Valley & Mountain in South Seattle.
Read more of the Nov. 11-17, 2020 issue.