Maria Popova & Rebecca Solnit: Hopeful Words in the Dark

We were lucky enough to be present for Maria Popova’s conversation with Rebecca Solnit at the Nourse Theatre on December 12th, 2016.

Maria Popova, an eloquent and engaged interviewer, is the woman behind Brain Pickings, a (highly recommended) weekly newsletter that delves deep into a myriad of subjects. For example, just a few days ago I received this gem of a subject line in my inbox: “A beautiful love letter to Oliver Sacks and love itself, Hannah Arendt on our only effective antidote to the normalization of evil, and more.”  What I find so incredible about Popova’s work is her ability to resonate on a very deep level to current events without speaking to them directly.  I’m having a hard time with the extreme negativity that pervades mainstream media.  I know it’s important to expose the incredible darkness that’s upon our country right now, that it’s important to stay engaged with the truth of the situation, but I find myself feeling defeated and angry sometimes (let’s be real, most of the time).  Popova’s approach is to highlight and comment on scrupulously researched current and historical content such that there’s a clear correlation to what’s happening here and now, but it gets me thinking on a much deeper level than scary CNN reports.  I always learn something new, often about women who shaped history, but were never given credit at the time, and instead of feeling scared I come away feeling hopeful...

...which is exactly how I felt after being present for Popova’s interview with Rebecca Solnit (a personal hero of mine and someone whose words i’ve followed closely as a beacon for truth and hope throughout this past year and a half / author of many incredible books including Hope in the Dark and Men Explain Things to Me).  Their conversation was so rich that I could go on for pages, but I want to focus on three things that have really stayed with me in the months since.  

First, Solnit talks about embracing uncertainty and darkness, about the wisdom of continuing to question ourselves and the danger of getting set in our ideas.  Second, she highlights the importance of the collective voice and that we can shift our focus away from wondering what will happen to engaging with what we can make happen.  Third is the idea of discomfort being a generative force.

In her 2014 New Yorker essay, “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable”, Solnit quotes Virginia Woolf: “The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.”  What I hear in this statement is an acceptance that despite our best efforts to plan, we don’t know what the future will hold, so perhaps it’s best to let it be dark, to embrace this moment we’re in and see what we learn.  She talks about the value of connecting to the body by going for walks so that the mind can wander, because it’s in this wandering darkness that new connections form.  The dark has, for so long, been portrayed as something to fear, but for Woolf and Solnit it’s a beautiful realization that the dark future is ours to shape when we choose what to shed light on.  In the interview, Solnit talks about a “crusade against certainty.”  When we’re so focused on what we know, there’s very little room to grow and at this point in history, we all need to grow and listen.  Let us embrace the wisdom of uncertainty, continue to ask questions of those who are also resisting the current agenda, but may not share our perspective or privilege, and really listen.

When we listen deeply, let go of binary thought, and get comfortable discussing the many nuances of perspective, there’s an opportunity to find common ground.  That common ground is key to developing the collective voice necessary to change the storyline.  As Solnit says, “If you can change the story, you can change anything.”  What if, in addition to reporting all the terrible things T***p and his administration are saying and doing, CNN (or take your pick of mainstream media outlet) were covering all the resistance taking place, all the ways that people are working hard to protest?   Perhaps if civil disobedience became mainstream, that collective voice would be impossible to silence.  All that is to say, I don’t think civil disobedience needs to become mainstream in order to be effective.  It’s already working and each of us has the power to choose resistance; by changing our personal storylines, we contribute to the collective change.

“What if i’m someone who isn’t comfortable protesting?  What if it’s just not my thing?”  asked an audience member during the question and answer session.  Solnit’s response: resistance is rarely comfortable and discomfort is generative.  I’ll be the first to admit that the discomfort is not always something i’m eager to invite in; I’m trying hard to find my voice and navigate the intersectional complexity of resistance with openness and without ego.  I’ve been wrong about things; I’ve been scared to put my body on the line and I often question my words and opinions.  I return to Solnit’s words of discomfort being generative, because how else will I grow beyond what I think I know?  In an attempt to deepen my experience with resistance, I recently started a personal practice of doing something uncomfortable every day.  This could be as simple as introducing myself to a new person (sounds simple, but makes me pretty anxious!), supporting folks outside of my immediate community by attending workshops or meetings, traveling a little further to support a local business instead of a corporation, speaking out when I encounter hatred.  What i’ve found so far is that, while I may have gone into the situation feeling uncomfortable, I usually leave feeling more connected to myself and those around me.  Do you have a personal practice?  If so, we’d love to hear about it in the comment section!

I highly recommend the writing of both Maria Popova and Rebecca Solnit.  They offer hopeful words through their compelling stories that also provide some valuable context for this strange and awful predicament.  Months later I still feel a deep gratitude for this conversation; I couldn’t find a link of it to share, but below are links to a couple other gems.

Sending love,