There is no one who better challenges my complacent acceptance, denial, and avoidance of reality than Bill Moyers. I love and fear his work equally, because it often, initially, flattens my spirit and leaves me with a feeling of despair: All is lost; civilization, as an experiment, has failed. We’re doomed. Of course, that’s not his intent, but he articulates so forcefully and shines the light of truth upon injustice so brilliantly that there’s no denying we must change, but I’m never exactly certain how…What are the precise steps we must take? When all the money and power are in the hands of so few, what should and can I do?
Moyers’ new program, Moyers and Company. Premiered last week, with this program: http://billmoyers.com/episode/on-winner-take-all-politics/. If you haven’t seen it, you should. It may confirm what you already know, but it certainly elucidates, clearly and compellingly, the inequities our country tolerates and must not, if it is to survive as a democratic republic.
I loved it, and felt the old, familiar “Moyerian flattening” as it concluded. The guests, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, stressed that their indictment of the corporate control of America and the alarming escalation of the transference and concentration of our country’s power and wealth to the hands of a few, over the past 30 years, should not leave us depressed, but hopeful. Knowledge is power and knowing this, we can change it.
But I didn’t feel hopeful; I felt tiny, powerless, and victimized.
I’ve been reflecting on it ever since; setting it aside, picking it up…the usual Moyerian response.
This morning I felt in need of a reprieve. The daily round began with an early hike down the trail with my 4-legged companions, and we were rewarded with a surfeit of the rare and charmed meetings that a winter dawn can bring.
Our fox, as I’ve come to think of him, paraded along the riverbank, his bushy tail high in the air and his aura of solitary self-contentment apparently shielding him from detection by Clancy and Riley. They were so intently monitoring the Canada geese on the other side of the bridge that they didn’t even see Mr. Fox, and for that, I was grateful. Reigning in 120 pounds of canine is a bit much at the best of times; on a slippery winter bridge it presents more complicated physics than I’m prepared to calculate or perform. Happily, we crossed the bridge peacefully and trudged along as Mr. Fox pranced out of sight.
The snow glittered and mirrored the soft colors of the sunrise, a chickadee chorus countered the crows, and our spirits gradually hushed as we walked deeper into the woods. There are farmers’ paths that cut across the trail in various places, and as we approached one of these, three young deer crossed, paused, looked into our eyes, and then leapt away, unearthly dancers defying gravity. Clancy and Riley were initially too stunned to give chase. The three of us froze in place, statues marking the place where a holy encounter with wildness had occurred. Their instinctive urge to pursue kicked in just as I tightened my grip on their leashes, allowing them to pull and sniff as the deer bounded into the woods as fast as light, and away.
I distracted Riley and Clancy with a treat—a cheap but effective trick, I admit—and the walk continued. The scent of other forms of wildlife who had preceded us along the trail kept them merrily sniffing and tracking till we reached our turning place and headed back home, and it was then that we had our most surprising encounter of the morning: a huge flock of robins sat in a grove of ash trees on the northwest side of the trail, their red breasts catching and flashing back the morning light.
I understand that robins frequently remain in my part of Wisconsin during the winter, but in my 15 years of walking the trail I have rarely seen them, let alone such a large flock.
The first robin-sighting in the spring bathes my spirit in hope: Another winter has been endured and new life is rewarding us once again. I felt that same hope rising and settling unexpectedly in my heart today, but with greater contrast, clarity, and depth than when discovering the first robin in spring
A robin in winter seems to more powerfully incite hope against overwhelming odds.
Last week’s news that enough signatures had been collected to initiate recall elections of our state’s governor and lieutenant governor and my district’s state senator, is both welcome and exciting. Although the recalls may fail, the fact that groups of citizens have challenged the powers-that-be and joined forces to stimulate change is heartening. Long before Occupy Wall Street, Wisconsinites were occupying Madison, and now, a year later, it’s encouraging to see that energy rewarded, although clearly a lot of work remains for those desiring change.
But I don’t believe replacing a Republican with a Democrat is nearly enough to improve my district, state, country, or the world Bill Moyer’s program has once again defined for me. Civilization seems too near some cataclysmic edge for insubstantial back-and-forth changes to satisfy the authentic needs of our hearts and spirits.
It seems that true evolutionary change is called for when power and wealth are so limited and concentrated, and such little good comes of it. We have to relate differently, expect different outcomes, imagine different futures, and do so with mutual respect, open dialogue, and at tables where all are welcome. I don’t think it can happen without the non-cooperation, peaceful resistance, and non-violence others have employed to create changes once considered impossible.
An obvious but clear connection to the robin in winter is Martin Luther King, whose legacy is celebrated nationally on this day. His own inspiration was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who was in turn inspired by such people as Plato, Thoreau, and Tolstoy…and behind and surrounding all of these men were equally inspiring women and other role models, of that I have no doubt.
There have always been people who have served as voices of hope when darkness is all most of us can see. And the thousands of nameless followers and supporters who worked to effect the changes we associate with “Gandhi,” “King,” and others, have also—always—been necessary agents of social, environmental, spiritual, and institutional evolution, along with their charismatic leaders.
It isn’t enough to write this, though, and then sit around waiting for a Gandhi or King we-who-are-sitting-and-waiting can support. I think the gift and the challenge is to be the robin in winter for ourselves, and in our relationships, dialogues, writing, choices, and actions.
We have to be hope.
We have to avoid demonizing those with whom we disagree, because de-humanizing them changes nothing and robs us of our own humanity and capacity for compassion. We have to steer clear of the traps and deeply rutted paths of ego; question everything, but respectfully; keep our eyes on justice and avoid engagement in judgment. We have to risk discomfort because it’s worth it, if our embarrassment or missteps help to create a better way of forming relationship and community. We have to trust that setbacks are temporary, whether we outlive them or not; evolution happens and we can hasten it with our hope.
Emily Dickinson wrote:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all…
Robins in winter remind us that startling encounters, whether with Bill Moyers’ programs or the wildness within and without, are always gifts, and can lead us to face life and the changes it demands of us, with hope, breathing hope, and being hope.