“I’ll tell you a secret to adulthood,” my mum told me from the other side of the world, when I was 27. “Stop waiting for ‘when life settles down.’ Life will never settle down.”
I’ve thought of that often, as life has lurched from one catastrophic up-ending to the next. Sitting in a flooded, broken hospital in Mississippi as Hurricane Katrina raged above and windows cracked around us. That was the worst life had for me, I hoped. My daughter, born two weeks later, far too early, with far too many problems — 10 days in the NICU not knowing if she would live. That was the worst life had for me, I hoped.
My 9-year-old son — nearly killed by septic shock. I spent a month by his ICU bed, watching his monitors blindly, making desperate bargains with God. That was the worst life had for me, I hoped. My stepson died at 18. We thought we’d never get up. We got up, because that was the worst life had for us, we hoped. The COVID-19 pandemic enveloped us. And in the summer of the pandemic, my husband died.
An acquaintance who heard that news a month later stood at the edge of Acacia Park, staring at me, shaking his head and saying over and over, “It’s too much, it’s too much. It’s just too much.”
It is too much. Still none of it is surprising: The universe is chaos. Without discipline and determination, it overtakes us.
As a nation, we’ve had too much. We’re sure we can’t take any more, and we’re waiting for life to stop with this chaos.
Amidst chaos, democracy is a discipline. Democracy is a deal we make with each other to clear a path through the chaos, wide enough for everyone. But for far too long, none of us have wanted to do the hard work of delivering on that deal.
In 2020, we threw ourselves into a flurry of activism and activity as we caught sight — too late — of American democracy sliding off the table. We exerted ourselves. We protested, marched, made signs, made calls, joined organizations, made donations, had hard conversations, supported candidates, voted.
But that whole time, we’ve been holding our breath — not waiting for success, but waiting to heave our sighs of relief. We’ve been hoping this is the worst life has for us. We’ve been holding our breath as if surely, surely now, the grownups will enter the room. As if surely this is rock bottom, the last straw. As if surely, surely now, the cavalry will come.
The new year has brought a stark reality: No one is coming for us. 2021 — which we looked forward to like a rescue — has brought only worsening chaos. 2021 has brought us the consequences of leaving democracy to someone else.
We don’t get our sigh of relief. Not in life, not in democracy. We don’t get to go “back to normal.” We can see now that “normal” is carefully skirting around a hole in the footpath, each person thinking the next will do something about it, until it’s deep enough for someone to break an ankle. Normal is not enough.
This year won’t bring relief, nor will 2022, and we have to grow up and realize that democracy is work every year, every day. It’s not a burst of activity. It’s a slog. It’s not something we leave up to “activists” and “community organizers” as if they’re the magical Other. We’ll all have to keep doing things we don’t want to do, that we’re too tired to do. We must keep calling our representatives, pouring our energies into organizing for social justice and government reform and environmental action, protesting, making donations, having hard conversations, stepping up to serve on boards, running for office, digging out corruption, fighting disinformation, holding enemies of democracy accountable, holding our leaders accountable.
We don’t get to bury our heads in the sand, we don’t get to be selfish. We don’t get to stop.
This is our wakeup call, heard far too late. This is our “grow up” call, heard as a nation on fire.
Democracy isn’t someone else’s work to do while we get on with our lives. It’s our work. We must find ways to weave that work into our every day, into the ways we lead our companies and our organizations, respond to injustice, confront racism and inequity; into the truths we teach our kids. It is our duty to muster this energy, even though we’re already exhausted.
The cavalry isn’t coming. We are all we have.