“This has single handedly been the worst year of my life,” my mother said. She was sitting on the floor, with piles of boxes covered in wrapping paper with cute, neon colored Santa Claus in a trippy circular pattern. She pulled at the scotch tape and it made a sticky, plastic snap. I was sitting on the bed, looking down at her— but not really. I was a little bit too focused on my phone. When I finally looked up at her she beamed, “but I did just wrap your Christmas present in front of you.” I rolled my eyes.
I thought about her words— the part where she proclaimed that 2016 was just simply the worst. She wasn’t wrong. In some ways, though, I didn’t necessarily think that it was “the absolute worst.” Instead, it was the year of change on a larger scale than most people experience in a decade. This was the year of Trump. Brexit. The Syrian refugee crisis. The year that racism became a real topic in America, and not just a history lesson. This was the year of the woman, yet it wasn’t at the same time. The year of bathrooms. The year of Pulse. The year that nonviolent resistance became something real in my life instead of a sermon on Sunday morning.
But for most Americans looking into the future, with more uncertainty than I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, we are caught up in the confliction of Optimism. The truth is, people have told me my entire life that the world will be okay, and yet the only time anything ever gets done is when someone defiantly says, “No.”
“Everything’s not okay.”
Optimism for the sake of being optimistic is more damaging than a healthy cup of cynicism. More damaging in its own right. In uncertain situations, optimism gets in the way of progress. Sometimes things don’t work, but people are too scared to be labeled a “giver-upper” to reevaluate themselves. Buy colorful duct tape, put the system back to together, and it’s all fine.
“Everything is fine.”
And yet- how much better would the world be if it was okay not to be okay?
No one in America has ever earned their rights by being completely optimistic. Yes- they were optimistic in the potential for change—but there is a stark difference between sitting idly on the side of the road, baptizing yourself every morning in false reassurance and recognizing that the world won’t change unless you do. Take Martin Luther King Jr, the only black man in America that all white people seem to love, and look at what he actually preached. Oh yes— the man had a dream. But the only reason that dream was successful was because people were willing to be disruptive. Cynical in the system’s ability to serve them. Optimistic in their own ability to change it. Even today, when a black man kneels on a football field in a statement, the world declares his single act of disruption as too much.
“Why can’t you just be optimistic about things? This will change in time.”
But don’t try to change it yourself.
The women’s rights movement still experiences this. Feminism is a dirty word and a complicated one. The concept of Womanhood is a complexity far beyond the sights of most. Womanhood is inherent on culture. Race. Sexual Orientation. It is often complacent on perspective of men. American feminism forgets our sisters of color still struggling in the trenches in the third world. It ignores the young, female immigrant, trying to follow our happily advertised American dream by criticizing her efforts. It blatantly disrespects the urban poor by refusing to provide sexual education because pretty, blonde women in big houses think that sex is dirty because the men in church said so. I am cynical of the movement, and yet—I am still a feminist. A womanist. Because none of this will change unless people within the movement decide that it is not okay.
So this year, when you’re making your New Year’s resolutions, I encourage you to make this the year of disruption. Correct the man sitting next to you on the airplane. Tell that boy in your 9am math lecture that he’s being a sexist. Bring up the glass ceiling in that job interview. Make that clerk in the grocery store pronounce your ethnic name correctly. Make sure the kids know that this is not alright. Remove your faith in other people’s actions, and instead change them yourself.
And maybe, in all of our cynicism of the world, 2017 will be our year.