Editor’s Note: The following essay is the product of a class entitled “Writing Resistance: Sustainable Spiritualities in the Age of the Anthropocene.” The class, open to all Wake Forest students, was taught by author and advocate Terry Tempest Williams.
There’s a power in hoping. There’s a power in believing in something. There’s a power in believing that something is possible. There’s also power in believing that it’s not. There’s power in disbelief, in the same way that there is power in fear—in the same way there is power in despair. There is power in the over-whelming and all-consuming feeling of powerlessness—the feeling that comes over us when the weight of the world is far too heavy and far too much for us to bear.
The weight of the world is something I attempted to carry as a student at Appalachian State University. As a student of Sustainable Development newly introduced to the realities of climate change, mountain-top removal coal mining, the prison system, and politics, I became determined to save the world. To fix it. To save the land. To save the streams. To save the dying and fiery fairies of my childhood, who clung to milkweed, and morphed into monarchs. To make a difference that was real, and calculable, and felt. But determination isn’t always enough.
Though I was determined to make an impact, with every day that I experienced the bombarding of facts against my cause—against my hope—my determination waned. Not because I didn’t want to help, but because I couldn’t. It was too big. I was too small. Too many powerful forces were working against me… And what power did I have? What power did we have, really?
I fell into a deep depression. Though I wanted to do what was right, I feared we were already too far gone… I continued to read my books. I spoke up in class. But at the end of the day, the sunset was just a gleaming pink and orange reflection of pollution in the sky. It scared me. It was like a knife to my heart. A knife to my hope. But it was also true… And when I asked my professors where the hope was? They told me to look within myself. I have never felt more hopeless.
But that isn’t to say I am hopeless today. I have reclaimed my hope, if it was ever mine to reclaim… I found it again, amidst the hurt, and the fear, and a realization that hope had never left… It was my belief that had been wounded. It was my unbelief, my disbelief, my failure of faith that had stripped me of my courage. Belief was lacking. In his “Democratic Vistas” Walt Whitman suggests, “…[w]e best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at the present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us.” Friends, the same is true today. We don’t believe. I didn’t.
So, what changed? What brought me out from this place of despondency to a place in which I am cognizant of the hope that surrounds me on wings like a bluebird? Hope that swims within rivers. Hope that sits atop a mountain. Hope that roots itself deep into the ground and grows tall like an oak tree. Hope like a baby’s first step. Hope like resurrection. What changed?
Prayer. It may sound contrite or naïve, but I can assure that this was nothing of the sort. This was bold. This was coming to God and laying bear the inner-workings of my heart, and my hurt, and my fear. This was admitting to God that I had tried to do his job, her job—to save the world by myself. One person… I had been so busy trying to fix things, that I had forgotten to believe. I had been trying to save a world whose Savior I was not.
Until my junior year of undergrad, I had never prayed on behalf of sustainability. I had never prayed that our leaders would listen to the cries of the world both human and otherwise. I had never prayed for justice in the coalfields. I had never prayed for the rivers of Kanawha County, West Virginia… Streams that run like veins, streams literally turned the color of blood by mining waste. I had never prayed about climate change. The things I’d been so vocal about in every other aspect of my life, the things that kept me up at night, inhabited a space of silence in my faith.
And when I realized this, I got down on my knees.
For forty-five minutes I prayed that God would come into the injustice. That God would use me, as God took this in God’s hands. That God would forgive my arrogance in thinking this was solitary work. That God would help my unbelief. That God would forgive my forgotten hope.
I prayed until I was hoarse, and when I finally stood up the carpet had worn its pattern into my legs. But I hardly noticed. I felt free—not free from the worries of the world, but free to step inside them and do something. My powerlessness had become my power, because all things are possible with God. And I was no longer alone.
Belief. Belief is my resistance, and I resist the idea that there is nothing left worthy of belief.
I believe in what is good. I believe in what is whole. I believe in people coming together for change. I believe in second-chances. I believe in mangroves, orchards, chickens, and daffodils. I believe in mountains and the way they make me feel. I believe in learning. I believe in family. I believe in beauty. I believe in God. I believe in our ability to love the world into hope…
So, what do you believe in?