By Anthony Rella
I dream that a friend of mine is leading a ritual to teach us about capitalism and its damages. The ritual is bizarre and colorful. After, I see a group of elders heading toward a table, complaining about how they don’t understand what was happening, expressing their anger at my friend. I tell another person about this, who says, “They’ve forgotten the role of fear and trembling in religion.”
Sometimes I think it’s enough for me to live a life that is simple and useful. No big drama, no public persona, no extremes of wealth or fame, simply showing up every day to be of service and lighten others’ burdens as best as I can. When I look at what’s in front of me, what it’s within my skills and capacity to do as a therapist, I feel a sense of ease and purpose. Being present in a room with someone, trying to listen and understand them deeply and help them to listen to and understand themselves deeply, feels powerful and satisfying and I know it improves quality of life and quality of relationships.
Yet often I wonder whether a simple and useful life is enough for the world. Is my service too myopic? Am I retreating to the comfort of believing myself powerless when I fail to speak out against mass incarceration, against rampant inequality, against the decimation of our environment? I may never have to experience some of these problems directly, yet I believe we all suffer from their existence. To live in a city in which one’s condominiums were built on a site that formerly housed 160 low-income families who have to find somewhere else to live that they can afford—itself built on a site colonized and annexed from its earlier inhabitants—no matter how noble I think I am, no matter how much money I give or how I pay lip service to the right slogans, at heart I know that my lifestyle includes evil. Not an obvious, movie villain kind of evil; an evil that quietly kills joy, exploits the land and living people, and grinds hope to dust.
I know that the iPhone that adds convenience to my life also includes evils of worker exploitation and environmental degradation. Riding a car, even riding a bus, my lifestyle depends on fossil fuels and energy consumption that includes evils of war and the pollution of air, water, and soil. The culture in which I never needed to consider why most important historical figures, writers, scientists, and artists all look like me is the culture that inflicts evil on people of color, assaulting and diminishing self-esteem and dignity, justifying disproportionate incarceration and state-endorsed murder. There is no opting out of this system.
We need more than personal change to create just, joyful, resilient, life-affirming cultures. I know that I cannot fix all these things myself. What I am best able to do is show up daily and support people, one by one, in being their best selves and creating better worlds. In my life, huge transformations have come when I simply kept showing up for daily practice and the work that was in front of me. That answer feels incomplete. Even when I meet individually with the people experiencing these harms and help them to become more resilient, more self-possessed, and more joyous, they still return to a system set up against their well-being.
To be honest, the idea of revolution terrifies me, as I suspect it terrifies anyone who has privilege, who benefits from the world as it is today. In The Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard says of anxiety that it is “a desire for what one dreads.” One source of fear is the real possibility that revolution will leave people more oppressed and spiritually impoverished. Another source of fear is the belief that change will likely involve pain, at the very least discomfort. White people’s terror of Black people’s anger, I believe, is because deep down we know it’s warranted and just. We imagine how we would feel if the roles were reversed. We know that our ancestors benefited from the brutalization and exploitation of people of color. My Irish and Italian ancestors, at one point non-white in this country, might have once found common cause with people of color in protest. Instead, we got the “upgrade” to Whiteness, which was deliberate and strategic as explored by Noel Ignatiev in How the Irish Became White, and we’re now stakeholders in White privilege.
So I see in my heart the anger and resentment when people speak up about their oppression and it implicates me. I practice setting aside my defensiveness to listen, but still part of me wants to silence the oppressed, shame them, dismiss them. Part of me wants to pretend their stories aren’t real, their anger isn’t justified, or somehow exempt myself from the conditions that oppress them. Once I’ve begun to dismiss and silence, I’ve committed another crime against humanity. I’ve numbed the drive for justice and integrity. I’ve chosen to swallow the pain of life as it is and avoid the possibility that we can make things better. I’ve chosen to abdicate my power to make change and simply pretend that incomprehensible forces beyond my control made things the way they are, instead of humans making human choices.
While writing this piece, I encountered this quote from John Michael Greer:
It occurred to me the other day that quite a few of the odder features of contemporary American culture make perfect sense if you assume that everybody knows exactly what’s wrong and what’s coming as our society rushes, pedal to the metal, toward its face-first collision with the brick wall of the future. It’s not that they don’t get it; they get it all too clearly, and they just wish that those of us on the fringes would quit reminding them of the imminent impact, so they can spend whatever time they’ve got left in as close to a state of blissful indifference as they can possibly manage.
I don’t know the answers, or more likely I’m terrified by the answers in front of me. What I know is that we need those on the edges: the radicals, the queer, the marginalized, the ones who speak up and remind me of what I’d want to ignore. These are the voices that see we are the Titanic plowing heedlessly into the ice and shouting for us to stop. We need these voices if we’re going to survive the changes that are already happening.
Meanwhile I continue to show up to my spiritual practice every day, and show up to my life trying to seed connection and joy. If I am to continue, however, I must also own and nurture the part of me that feels anger, that pushes for change, that strives for a world in which everyone has a warm place to sleep, enough to eat, and does not live in fear of being harmed by the people who are supposed to protect them. Survival is not enough. Comfort is not enough. Fear is not enough. We must be whole, passionately loving this earth and our humanity, and striving for justice.
Anthony Rella is a witch, writer, and therapist living in Seattle, Washington. Anthony is a student and mentor of Morningstar Mystery School, and has studied and practiced witchcraft since starting in the Reclaiming tradition in 2005. Professionally, he is a psychotherapist working full-time for a community health agency and part-time in private practice.