OP-ED: The Weather and the Stars
by Communications Committee volunteer Stefan Jones
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“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”
The above passage from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King takes place when things look grim for hobbits Sam Gamgee and Frodo, who are sneaking across the blighted, orc-haunted land of Mordor beneath a magical pall of smoke that blots out sun and sky. Sam — the rough-around-the-edges gardener who many consider the real hero of The Lord of the Rings — needs all the help he can get to escort his despairing boss to their destination.
I was reminded of that passage’s imagery and message recently when I read a commentary by Dahlia Lithwick, “The Only Way to Navigate the Election Storm Ahead” (https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2022/11/election-lies-2022-midterms-misinformation-survival.html).
Lithwick suggests a strategy for dealing with the misinformation, claims of fraud, rancor and finger-pointing that would follow the midterm election. She notes:
My rabbi recently reminded me of a useful way to think through the fog. Citing another spiritual hero last weekend, Aurora Levins Morales, she reminded me that there is always a difference between the weather and the stars. Morales, teaching in 2017, warned that it is too easy to be buffeted by the changeable weather, and in so doing, to lose sight of the immutable stars. The stars, in this telling, are a “constant to steer by, sometimes hidden by storm clouds, but high above them, untouched by wind or rain.”
The weather is different. Weather, Morales conceded, can be “violent, drenching, harsh.” But it isn’t constant. If we do nothing but chase and feel the weather, she wrote, “we could spin forever from emergency to emergency, shouting no to each new crime—but that would be steering by chasing clouds.”
When we immerse ourselves in social media or binge on cable news we subject ourselves to the political equivalent of 24/7 Weather Channel disaster coverage. It is deliberately gripping and urgent, an algorithmically designed snare to hold our amygdalas in a firm grip, making us think we have to keep listening and watching to gather information vital to our survival.
Lithwick concludes by quoting a remarkable and stirring passage by Morales:
We need to step into the calm eye of the storm, and steer by the stars, to imagine in rich detail, the biggest, most delicious, satisfying, inclusive future that we can, a great flowering of human potential and wellbeing, project our hearts and minds into that future, and then spend our lives walking toward it, and each time the weather buffets us, wait for a glimpse of sky, find that bright point of light, and adjust our course.
Don’t waver. Don’t let despair sink its sharp teeth into the throat with which you sing. Escalate your dreams. Make them burn so fiercely that you can follow them down any dark alleyway of history and not lose your way. Make them burn clear as a starry drinking gourd Over the grim fog of exhaustion, and keep walking.
I am confident that the insanity of election deniers, Trump fanatics, would-be theocrats, and QAnon loons will ultimately prove a small and passing thing, and an object lesson for future generations. But they will not march into the dustbin of history on their own, and must be prevented from inflicting damage to democratic norms and civic society. We need to do our jobs, as citizens of a democracy and members of a civilization, to champion progress and justice, whether it is by working on campaigns, donating to and volunteering for advocacy groups, demanding action by our elected officials, and generally making Good Trouble.
Fear is an important and essential thing . . . but it is only useful up to the point where we must choose to Fight or Flee. And we don’t have the choice of fleeing. We need to stop spreading fear, and start spreading the hope and determination necessary to defend democracy and progressive values. We need to take a break from quoting Sinclair Lewis’ and Hannah Arendt’s mournful warnings about autocracy, and obsessively filling out our signs-of-fascism bingo cards, and start quoting John Lewis, who took literal blows to the head standing up to the goons of racist oppression in the civil rights movement but persevered to inspire us with words like:
“Ours is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year. Ours is not the struggle of one judicial appointment or presidential term. Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part. And if we believe in the change we seek, then it is easy to commit to doing all we can, because the responsibility is ours alone to build a better society and a more peaceful world.”
Turn off the Weather Channel. Find your stars. Decide what you can do, sustainably, to fight the loons and would-be tyrants, and what causes you will champion.