A Day for Discomfort

This morning, I am remembering a lot of hypothetical conversations during the primary season, as it became clear that Bernie and Warren were going to lose.

My father, in particular, said, “This election can be about revolution and systemic change, or it can be about the rule of law, restoring the status quo. I’m not sure it can be about both.” Neither of us, in that moment, thought the country was ready to consider the former. And as good white progressives do, we sighed and bemoaned that we might be forced to vote for Biden in November. And then probably we ate sandwiches or something.

I am remembering other hypothetical conversations over the years, when friends and I asked each other, “How bad will it have to get in this country before enough Americans are willing to demand real change?” People were too comfortable, we thought, and we wondered what it would take to make them uncomfortable enough. (And then probably we ate sandwiches or something.)

Trump is a horror show. Covid-19 is a horror show. But maybe, together, they’ve made enough middle class Americans uncomfortable that we can wake up and stare directly at two things that are truly making our nation sick, and always have: systemic racism and income inequality (which cannot be divorced from American capitalism).

For the last week, we’ve been seeing young leaders in the streets, who are not comfortable. Their discomfort is a gift to us now. And yesterday, my rabbi posted something powerful. He said: “To tear down a system built on white supremacy, we would do well to let our discomfort unsettle us.”

I would ask my comfortable friends– the people who call themselves progressives, to consider discomfort right now. If you say you hate racism, but have some amount of power in the corporate world or the law or government structures or the arts/media community. If you have money because you have benefitted from those structures– I ask you to think about how you can turn your discomfort into change. (Before you go eat a sandwich or something). How can you disrupt the system that creates your own comfort, to improve the world at large?

I feel like shit that I haven’t taken my immunocompromised body out in the streets, but a wise friend yesterday said to me, “there is a difference between choosing to be physically safe which is smart and necessary and choosing calculated intellectual/emotional/economic risks.”

I’ve been sitting with that, and I think it’s exactly right. Risk. In the streets, people are taking risks. They are giving up comfort, in hopes of actual structural change. And I want to suggest that for those of us who are not in the streets, there are other roles to play.

I have not been doing that myself, I’m ashamed to say. Instead, I’ve been seeking comfort–in my garden, my kitchen, my television and my bookshelf, my liquor cabinet and my search for a fucking plastic kiddie pool. Trump and the virus have made me unsettled, uncomfortable, unhappy, so I have tried to soothe myself.

But that’s not what this moment is for, I think. Even for those of us at home, the question is: what can we unsettle from where we are? What can we smash, and then rebuild? Not the window of a barber shop, but the structures we have been supporting with our jobs, our privilege, our daily lives?

I don’t have an answer yet, but I know I have struggled with this all my life– the balance of my comfort/privilege with what I claim to be my convictions and beliefs. And if I’m uncomfortable now, it’s because these protests are shining a light on the fact of my complicity, and all the ways I’ve benefitted.

People are attempting to dismantle the very worst thing, our national shame. And every day, we are either helping them do it, and/or we are supporting the structures that enable it. At the very least, we should be able to sit with our discomfort, and not soothe ourselves with wine and Netflix.

We post a picture of MLK to FB, or send 50 bucks to the NAACP for bail. But really, aren’t those just other small ways of seeking comfort?

Hopefully, those of us who claim to want change, to hate racism, will move from discomfort to action now. Right now. If not in the streets, in the spaces we live– our jobs, schools, etc.

You want to talk about November, but it’s June 1 right now, and the kids are in the streets. An election can’t undo the systemic problems of this country. An election never has.


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