Be hopeful about change.
"We must reject stagnation and become comfortable with uncertainty. We must embrace newness and see the potential that lies in every situation. Do not fill yourself with fear. Fear is suffocating. All forms of injustice exploit the use of fear; it will immobilize you until you are stale. Instead, fill yourself with hope. Good things spawn from hope. Hope will make you limitless."
The fictional sky is a cheerful shade of blue, painted with a delicate smear of clouds, when a militia of white men swallow the streets of Wilmington, North Carolina. The year is 1898 in Charles Chesnutt’s novel The Marrow of Tradition, about three decades after the abolition of slavery and the story thrusts the reader into the midsts of an armed protest against black freedom. As the narrative weaves through a collection of connected and contrasting lives, all of the characters, white and black alike, are haunted by the ghost of the Antebellum South, or, more generally, haunted by the fear of change. This results in discomfort, resentment, and ultimately violence.
In Chesnutt’s book one sees the internal and external dissonance that occurs after the destruction of a distinct historical period, which in this case is the Southern pre-Civil War culture founded upon superficial manners and the subordination of blacks. The text features a number of black characters (most middle-aged and above) that struggle to find identity and agency without the institution of slavery and, perhaps more problematically, an indignant white population threatened by the newfound rights of their fellow black citizens. In essence, what the Marrow of Tradition shows is the human tendency to attach to specific periods of time, to romanticize them into something they are not, and to fill ourselves with fear when they are no longer existent. This is because humanity has a defensive instinct to assume all change is bad.
But this is not the case. Change is normal and it is essential. In fact, we should be concerned when things are stationary, because never are things in perfect alignment for every single person and living thing on the planet. To be stationary is to sit and bathe in our problems, rather than working to solve them. Consider the lentic versus the lotic ecosystem. The lentic ecosystem, where water is still and stagnant, is easier to pollute and contaminate. The lotic ecosystem, where water is flowing and continuously moving, filters out contaminants with greater ease. In this way, change holds the potential for filtering out our contaminants, for making progress in the issues and injustices that pollute our world. We cannot be too comfortable or too attached to what surrounds us now. The characters of The Marrow of Tradition wish to restore the “honor” of the white Southern family, but to return to this so-called honor is also to return to institutions founded upon oppression. We should be suspicious of nostalgia. Romanticizing the past scribbles out historical injustice and oppression, and these are not things we should be taking into the future.
That is not to say that the direction of change is always inherently good. It is not change in itself but the opportunity for improvement found within change that is good. When the direction of change is negative, we must redirect it. But how can one determine if the direction of change is negative? Foremost, we must ask ourselves what this change is a response to. The backlash and violent protest of the white Southerners is a response to abolitionism’s threat to long-standing and dysfunctional white supremacy and to a lingering feeling of paranoia “abiding long after the actual physical bondage had been terminated” evolved from “the constant fear of negro insurrections” (Chestnutt, 276). In this case, the change toward violent rallying and protest is negative, because it stems from a place of fear and from a desire to reinforce inequality. Fear, anger, indignation, and ego are all origins of change to be wary of. Secondly, we must ask if this change is occuring at the exploitation of a person or people. Is anyone’s human status or right to a well-lived life being sacrificed? The movement to return to the Antebellum South would only occur at the revocation of black human status. The Nazi endgoal of a perfect Aryan state is dependant on the extermination of millions of Jews, Romanis, homosexuals, and more. If a negative change is disguised as a solution, examine if it is a solution for everyone or a solution for a select few. If it is a solution only for a select few, then it is not a solution at all.
Even if negative change has been thrust upon us, it is necessary more than ever to fill yourself with hope. When change is negative, we must be active about redirecting its course. “It is impossible, therefore I will not try” is a fatal thought. This phrase turns us into shadows; it removes our matter and substance. Too often do we think about the worst outcomes of our situations yet blatantly ignore our immense capacity to handle the worst. It is not so much entertaining the idea of things going awry that suffocates us, but rather undermining our ability to cope, our ability to solve, and our togetherness should the worst really come into fruition. We must also truly contemplate the nature of the word impossible. The word impossible has no meaning. Impossible means that down every single path, in every single time and place, by the efforts of any person or group or people, an outcome will not occur. This, however, simply cannot be true. The human mind does not have the capability to foresee every single path or outcome of a situation and therefore cannot make such definite conclusions. Impossible is too certain and too finite to be applied to anything. Impossible goes against the nature of the universe. It goes against entropy - the gravitation toward chaos, uncertainty, and nothingness, which has the capacity to occupy any and everything. Both bad and good.
Hope is not about idly sitting by while injustice occurs and delusionally expecting everything to be miraculously resolved. Hope is about seeing the potential for what is not present and believing we can bring it into being. Being hopeful is not being passive. On the contrary, to be full of hope is to remove imaginary, self-created restraints in order to be fully active and fully present in creating the solutions to the problems of the world. In the uncertainty of change lies infinite space to create what we desire. Hope inspires us to create solutions in this space. Hope erases the fear-based strings with which we can be manipulated. By being consistently full of hope, we are limitless.