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I woke up this morning feeling weighed down by all of the recent news. I told a friend that, while I continue to take steps to support things I believe in every day, it is increasingly feeling like I’ve used all of my fingers to plug holes in the dike and tomorrow when I wake up there will be a new leak that I don’t have capacity for. I know from experience that I feel this way from time to time and eventually I find my footing and get grounded in the knowledge that there are lots of others with their fingers holding the deluge back too and that the little things I am doing are important. And yet, here I am, today, feeling overwhelmed.

I don’t write about reproductive rights much anymore which is a huge departure for me. For years, mostly when my kids were young, I wrote about it on my blog, for online outlets like The Feminist Wire, and even for an anthology called Get Out of My Crotch! I spent years interviewing people who had struggled with the decision of whether or not to terminate a pregnancy and crafted a manuscript out of those stories, determined to humanize the “Pro-Choice/Pro-Life” debate once and for all.

Naïve. Yes.

Despite years of shopping the manuscript to agents and publishers, nobody wanted it. It was either “not controversial enough” (because I told stories of abortion, adoption, and even those people who chose to raise a child) or “not interesting” (because one – male – publisher told me it wouldn’t be interesting to men and therefore, it wouldn’t sell enough copies). Every year or so I pulled it out, dusted it off, updated it (because there were always new laws and new fights to talk about) and tried again. Until finally, I decided to put it out into the world anyway, because I felt bad that these people had trusted me with their stories and they weren’t being shared. I asked a friend to help me make it into a website, hired a graphic designer and a web designer, took pains to make sure that it was entirely anonymous (which is bullshit in and of itself because I wanted to make sure that my children wouldn’t be targets for some anti-choice militant who was angry about my views on abortion), and launched it. But it didn’t gain traction, mostly because I am crap at marketing and social media buzz and also because it’s hard to do that when you’re trying to protect your identity.

In the years since, I have wrestled with the idea of whether or not to keep resurrecting the book or the website for a variety of reasons. I got busy with other things and frankly, the older I get, the more I think that this is a Sisyphean feat – the topic of reproductive rights in the United States. But also, because, in a very idealistic way, I don’t think that women should have to bare their souls and rip open their wounds in order to be seen as human and deserving of the right to make their own healthcare decisions. In many cases, the people who are making the draconian laws such as the one that just took effect in Texas don’t deserve to hear my story and Bianca’s story and Ayesha’s story. I am past believing that it will make a difference. Despair. That’s why I stopped writing about reproductive rights. And it makes me sick to say that, to admit it. I had such hope that the Plan B pills and the abortion pills would end the conversation for the most part. But I’m certain that when Roe v. Wade was enacted, some folks hoped that it would be the end of it, too.

That same friend I was talking to this morning reflected on the last year and noted that he had harbored such hope that things would look different now in terms of Covid. He admitted that six months ago, he believed that the rollout of vaccines would have an enormous impact and we would not be where we are now with new outbreaks and variants and many places still locked down.

It occurred to me that part of the problem is that we come up with these ideas, these solutions, perched atop the old systems, and we try to implement them that way. We are mapping our solutions on the old, broken systems that were designed for rich white men in Western countries. Of course they won’t work for societies made up of people who aren’t mostly rich white men. The vaccine rollout didn’t fundamentally change anything because it was largely rolled out in Western countries that are mostly ruled by white men. Variants are coming from parts of the world that don’t have the same access to vaccines and other public health measures. These restrictive abortion laws are being mapped on to a system that was created by and for white men – with principles of punishment and control – and because the majority of the populace of this country is not white men, there is a great deal of suffering that will come with them. The upheaval we are experiencing right now, over and over again, is thanks to things being determined and run by people who don’t represent the actual people who live within the systems. The majority of Americans support abortion rights, so why is it that these laws keep getting prioritized? Because the lawmakers are white men, by and large. The majority of Americans didn’t support the war in Afghanistan, so why did it keep getting funded to the detriment of other social programs for people in America? Because the lawmakers are white men, by and large. Or they are well-served by the systems that white men created, and they have an interest in upholding them.

I have no answers today, I’m afraid, only the message that if you are feeling despair and frustration and overwhelm, you are not alone. If you are feeling hopeful that we are beginning to dismantle these old systems, please let me know and send me a light in the darkness today. In the meantime, I will support the outside-the-system things that are happening to give women who are pregnant options and amplify the voices of the folks who are calling for a new way of being.

For the last six months or so, I’ve watched with increasing discomfort as social media posts telling people to get vaccinated against Covid and vilifying people who are choosing not to vaccinate fill my feed. Some of them are brief and to the point “Wear your damn mask and get your shot!” and others are full-on rants about ignorant people or angry missives that are full of sarcasm and othering language. There are folks who post polls asking their followers and contacts whether or not they’ve been vaccinated and links to videos mocking the people who choose not to, and so far, I’ve mostly resisted commenting on any of them or posting anything I think might come off as me joining the fray. Frankly, it has meant that my social media use is vastly curtailed (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – just sayin’…)

I have remained curious about my level of discomfort, trying to tease out where it hits me and why. While it’s easy for me to agree with the observations that part of our downfall is our lack of collective consciousness, it has still been difficult to reconcile the nastiness and othering that comes with “yelling” at people to get vaccinated for “the greater good.”

This morning as I walked on the beach, part of the puzzle seemed to come together in my head, thanks to a text exchange I had with a dear friend about the horrific scenes unfolding in Afghanistan.

She texted that she feels overwhelmed with all of the crises in the world and yet she also believes that it isn’t ok to “look away.” It is so hard to know what we can do to help the people who are suffering right now in ways we can’t even imagine. I talked to her about a group I’m involved with who has spent the last seven days lighting candles, raising money, and holding vigil for an Afghani couple who is trying to flee the country. Within that group, as things got worse and worse, we had the conversation about whether what we were doing was enough. Helping one family versus an entire nation. Given that, last night, that one couple managed to get on a plane to safety, it seems that we are helping, even in some small way. But, it turns out, that isn’t even really the point, and this is where the puzzle pieces began to fall into place.

What we have done in the last seven days is build community. We have forged relationships – not only among ourselves (a group of people that are scattered across the Western world), but with this Afghani couple and their family members. We have created a space where we come together in solidarity to try and alleviate some suffering. We have helped each other when it became hard to hold that space because it triggered our own trauma and fear and, it turns out, we gave this couple hope as they sat in a hot, jam-packed airport with gunfire and violence playing out outside, not knowing whether they would manage to get on a plane or be sent back to their homes.

It is a very Western, white-people thing to want to find The Solution. To invoke power structures to identify The Problem, create Rules and Mandates, and use power to impose them to Fix It. And while this is somewhat effective, what it doesn’t do is create community. There will never be a set of mandates that will convince us that we belong to each other.

It is a very Western, white-people thing to want to find The Solution. To invoke power structures to identify The Problem, create Rules and Mandates, and use power to impose them to Fix It. And while this is somewhat effective, what it doesn’t do is create community. There will never be a set of mandates that will convince us that we belong to each other. There will never be laws or rules that teach us that we are safe with each other and that we matter to someone else. Those things don’t build relationship and they don’t cultivate safety in the way that human beings need to feel safe. We white folks like rules and power because it makes us feel safe, but that is an illusion. When we think we are in control of a situation, we tend to relax a bit, but only a bit, because there is always the chance that someone with more power will come along and knock us off kilter and take control.

When we build relationship, by truly creating spaces where we feel safe with one another, we create community and a sense of shared well-being. That is why the physicians who take the time to listen to each individual concern about vaccine risks and acknowledge the fears of their patients can often have an impact on their choices. Playing on someone’s fears can be an effective way to change their behavior short-term, but you risk another, bigger fear coming along to usurp that one you cultivated. And even if you can change someone’s behavior, you can’t change their values by scaring them or forcing them to do something they don’t want to do.

We all want to belong, to feel safe with others, and to be part of something bigger than ourselves, but you can’t mandate that. Focusing on enforcement rather than relationship is where we white Westerners have gone wrong for hundreds of years. The social media posts that mock or shame other people destroy the potential for connection, even as they rack up ‘likes’ from people who agree with them. Those likes can make you feel righteous, but they aren’t going to convince anyone to care about the collective. Caring about the collective comes from feeling as though you are an integral part of it, and that comes through kindness and curiosity and trust-building.