Last weekend I finally saw the documentary What Would Jesus Buy? on DVD. It follows the crusade of “Reverend Billy” and the “Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir” during this past Christmas season as they traveled across the country spreading a message of anti-commercialism, support for local businesses, and hairspray. Well, the hairspray was more method than message, but I digress.
Say what you want about environmentalists taking on the language of the Church to make their points, (and by the way, there’s been quite a bit of debate about that very issue this week on several blogs I read) Reverend Billy’s evangelical escapades, offensive or not, grab attention and draw converts to the cause. He exorcises shopping demons from Wal-mart and Disneyland. He gets himself banned for life from Starbucks. He’s been arrested more times than his wife Savitri can count.
But flamboyant showmanship aside, what spoke to me as an activist was the group’s persistence in the face of a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Americans love to shop. The opening of the documentary shows footage of customers trampling each other at midnight on Black Friday in their race to get the best deals before everyone else. Everyone wanted either a Wii or an X-Box374rt43gh-something-or-other. And if they couldn’t bring it home THIS CHRISTMAS, they might as well not come home at all.
And yet there was Reverend Billy and his choir preaching in the midst of the chaos, singing revised versions of Christmas carols, and smiling at those who would deride them. What does it take to be that kind of person? Balls of steel? A white suit and an entire can of Aqua Net every day? It was hard enough for me to dress as a BRITA filter for the Bay to Breakers, an event where participants are expected to be outrageous. Now, I’m thinking about wearing my costume to the BART station to gather signatures during evening rush hour. Do I have the guts? What will it take to pull it off?
There is a scene in the film which was particularly touching to me. Billy and his wife are alone in their hotel room (except for the camera crew, presumably) feeling exhausted and overwhelmed after a particularly intense action at Wal-mart.
Savitri: [Looking like she’s ready to break.] I just don’t know if anyone hears us. Or if they do hear us, they so don’t want to hear us.
Billy: You look pretty tired.
Savitri: I feel I need for what we do to have an impact on someone. Soon.
Back in November, I left a comment on the No Impact Man blog that Colin Beavan copied (with my enthusiastic permission) as a post a few days later. The title of the post was, “On Caring Without Despairing,” and in it, I said:
My dad asked me the other day how I can blog day after day about plastic and not get totally overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the problem. I think part of my coping strategy, and it might be yours too, is selective attention.
I guess I allow in as much information as I can stand in order to understand the problem and then shut it out and focus on what I can do and how I can have the biggest impact and do the most good I can without caving under the pressure.
Not my most articulate moment, but sincere. My feeling at the time was that if I allowed myself to become overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem, I’d just curl up under the covers and do nothing but drink and eat bonbons. Shortly afterward, I received an email from No Impact Man reader, Brian Morton, who begged to differ with me. He actually sent me a very long essay explaining why despair is valuable and why we should all allow ourselves to feel our despair fully and completely. Here’s the last paragraph of his essay. I’d love to know what you think.
A time of black despair is coming, and if you feel like you are drowning in despair be comforted. Despair is a GOOD thing, when it functions properly. Swim in your despair, master it, use it for what it is good for. Use your despair to let go, and set new humbler goals. You are less rich, and less powerful than you think you are, than you are used to being. But you are not without any wealth; you are not without any power. Each breath is riches; each moment is wealth; each choice is power. All work is using our power. Do what work you can, plan, set new goals, and do what good you can. Despair, but do not drown in it, despair to clear a place for humbler goals. Your despair is in reality a valuable friend, helping you to re-prioritize your life, even when doing so is painful and difficult. Despair hurts, but it is a virtue in disguise. The pain of despair is the pain of healing, and adapting to humbler circumstances. All Americans will soon become acquainted with despair. Be assured, despair is a gloomy ally, but it is not in the end your enemy.
So, the question is, how do you cope? What keeps you going in the face of massive problems? As an activist (and I believe that everyone reading this blog is an activist in some way, whether you call yourself that or not) what makes you think you can make a difference? What gives you hope? And what is the role of despair in your life?