It is hard to keep up with all that is swiftly unfolding politically right now, but if you try, I can promise you a full day of doom-scrolling and despair. It all feels huge and impossible. Flinging one more opinion on abortion, climate change, gun control, religious freedom, the insurrection, LGBTQ+ rights, race relations, and whatever else I’ve missed this week is a nice attempt to feel like anything I say will actually do something. But it won’t.
When it comes to these issues, I have been along for the ride since birth and before, decisions made for me and everyone I know without our input, really, by mostly men and some women in far-off places who weigh life and death by GDP and percent of military spending, then come up with a propaganda campaign to woo their base so they can stay in power, while I compost watermelon rinds so the planet doesn’t die.
Too cynical? Maybe. Okay, it isn’t completely worthless. It does do something: It makes me feel better. When I think about all of the powerful decision makers somewhere making decisions for the country, I feel helpless. I feel distraught. I feel small. I feel inadequate.
I can’t do anything. But we can.
I finished The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again by Robert D. Putnam this week. It takes a long look at what has happened over the last 125 years at the macro level to move our country from a nation of fierce individualism (I) to a country that embraced the ideals of unity and shared purpose (we), and how those community ideals quickly eroded and have continued to deteriorate to where we are today: polarized, traumatized, disillusioned, angry, and afraid. Putnam argues that we are now in a second Gilded Age, an age we have emerged from before and can again.
The book is an excellent and exhaustive analysis of every influential marker of society, from economy to religion to culture to politics, not excluding gender and race. After seven chapters of analysis, I really just wanted Putnam to get on with it already. Okay, okay, I get the point, I-we-I, there is the inverted U-curve again. Putnam strongly makes his case about how we got here and then presents opportunities for how we can get ourselves out of here again.
The forces that generated real, actionable change in the early 1900s / Gilded Age did not come from the top down. They were grassroots efforts. They were individuals who saw injustice and inequality within their own communities and tried to do something about it. “Gilded” has two meanings: wealthy and privileged, and covered thinly with gold paint. The wealth and privilege may have been true for some, but it was not true for all. Even the shiny things turned out to be just a covering, a veneer that might have made people feel good enough, but underneath, it was faked. Instead of covering injustice and inequality with gold paint to make it look sparkly and new, these individuals scraped the paint away and offered new ways forward.
They weren’t all religious, but some were religious. They weren’t all political, but some were political. Because of their individual commitment and effort, change happened, in governmental policies, in local systems, through the organization of leadership associations, in churches, by forming nonprofits, by one person lifting their eyes from their own lives and seeing others, by believing there could be a better way.
These people didn’t take on every cause. They took on one wrong, one need, and leaned into that with all their hearts, trusting that someone else would lean into the myriad other wrongs and needs so that none would be neglected but all might be elevated. This is how I start to make a “we” difference.
When the world feels so overwhelming, when powerful people who are elected or appointed begin to make changes beyond my control, it is easy to succumb to helplessness or bitterness. It is easy to slide into despair, to slip into a pleasant coma of consumption and indifference.
Instead, pick one thing. Just one. When that one thing is violated, trampled, or broken, it breaks your heart, doesn’t it? It brings tears to your eyes. It stirs righteous anger in your bones. The injustice of it could crush you. That’s your one thing. That’s the thing you need to lean into, the thing you need to try to do something about.
What one thing do you care about? Where can you show up and change lives, maybe even change the arc of history? Go and do.