It’s been 12 years since my wife and I adopted two kids who had been in the state foster care system – a sibling pair, then aged 5 and 7, who we were told had gone though a lot. Now, our daughter, 19, has a baby of her own, and our son, 17, is beginning to gain mastery over some social challenges.
There’s a lot to celebrate, and a lot to recognize as the good fortune of different kinds of cosmic accident and cultural privilege. There’s also lots to worry about. I don’t want to violate our kids’ privacy, so I have to be vague. They’re both amazing, resilient people who have a shot at good lives as adults, and I can’t say whether or not I would be in as good a shape as they both are had I gone through the things they went through as small children, and even throughout their growing-up years with us.
So yes, there’s a lot to be thankful for and to celebrate. And there’s a lot of grief, and fear, and sadness. Some of it is the state of our country. Living in the fog of Trump is so toxic that it leaves me feeling nothing but despair and sadness, not just because of him and his corrupt and entitled entourage, but because something close to half the citizens of this country want what he wants. It’s bumping up against that reality that leaves me feeling despondent and helpless. And seeing this rightwing neo-fascist nationalistic garbage ascendant in so many countries has got me feeling sad and hopeless.
I want to make a difference, but often I don’t know how. And it gets me terribly, terribly down.
I fear my neighbors, many of my relatives, and entire subcultures of the country.
And this from me, a white man with higher education and a professional middle class job – granted, not one that pays all that well – but nevertheless. I am more aware of my privilege than ever. The other day, my friends were working out at a Planet Fitness, and I wanted to kill some time while I waited for them, so I walked into the nearby Whole Foods Market. I didn’t see anything I wanted, except for some cold water, so I wandered into the seating area and served myself a free cup of water from their cooler, and then I sat down for half an hour. I can do that as a white person without raising anyone’s suspicions.
Last weekend I got on the commuter train in Philly on my way to the airport, and I made a mistake and forgot to change trains. I ended up in the wrong part of town and I realized that I needed to get off the train and find another way to the airport pronto or I was going to miss my flight. Without hesitation, I asked the conductor to help me solve my problem. After he took a fair amount of time explaining my options, I then walked with my luggage into a nearby cafe, dumped my stuff near a sofa, and took my time setting up a Lyft ride before I bothered to get in line and order a coffee. Not sure how that would have played out in this somewhat posh, and very white, cafe if I had been black. I easily got the Lyft as well, and on the ride there I reflected on how my improvised plan to get me to the airport on time involved multiple small-scale interpersonal transactions that all involved my assumption that others would trust my motives and legitimacy. If I had had to operate with uncertainty about being extended that public trust, at best I might have had fewer viable options to solve the problem, and at worst I might have gotten questioned or hassled, or, as seems to be happening more and more, someone might have called the police on me for simply being somewhere while black.
I’m only beginning to glimpse this stuff.
I wish the country was different. I fear the future. I feel a crushing sense of sadness a lot of the time. Not just about the state of the world, but about the overwhelm I feel about life at every level.
I’m supposed to be a purveyor of hope, of encouragement, of a sense of the meaning we can find even in difficult times. Sometimes, in my work as a rabbi, I’ve succeeded in those ways. But sometimes I feel a bottomless sadness, and this is one of those times.