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There is a lesson in your longing
And it probably has something to do with community and action
There is a thing that many of us do when it becomes impossible to ignore violence and suffering. It is the thing that we did at specific intervals between 2014 and 2020, back when White people were temporarily paying attention to murders of Black people by the police. It is the thing that we did in the aftermath of Trump’s election. And it is the thing that we did this past week— first when Hamas attacked Israel, and then when the Israeli military attacked Gaza back.
We logged on.
Not all of us logged on, but many of us did. And we didn’t always log on to the same place. Over the years, we have logged onto Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and (god forbid) newsletters. We have followed, unfollowed and hate-followed. We have chased good time after bad, hoping that each successive attempt to log on might finally do the trick.
There’s no need for me to hide behind the faux-safety of plural pronouns. Last week, I spent far more time than I intended to spend online. I did so because there was death happening far away from I lived, and even though I had far less personal connection to that death than so many others, the knowledge of that death burrowed into my soul and refused to exit. I logged on because I have been told for the majority of my life that logging on is what I’m supposed to do when I’m feeling every emotion under the sun: anger, sadness, elation, invisibility, triumph, defeat, ennui, boredom, whatever.
I spent my logged on time in a number of different ways. Some of those choices were helpful. I shared some words that I needed to process out loud, and was pleased to find that those words were resonant with a number of other folks as well. I read a lot. I sought out perspectives that stretched both multiple muscles of empathy, my (still very partial) understanding of the conflict, and my nascent attempts at solidarity. I facilitated discussions and held tight to communities that matter to me. I sent some individual texts to friends and family members, but far fewer than I should have.
I also wasted a lot of time: hunting and pecking for perspectives that validated my own beliefs1, scrolling and judging, scrolling and feeling wildly self-conscious about being judged, and just generally paying too much attention to what everybody else was doing. I took notice of who was writing and posting and who wasn’t. I’m not even sure why I noticed, nor what I was trying to prove in my noticing. Was I disappointed in the non-writers or jealous of their good sense to keep quiet? I still don’t know! Both figuratively and literally, I read the comments. The comments were not good, you all2. There was so much disembodied grief and anger, all of it passed around like a hot potato from one hurt stranger to another hurt stranger. There were arguments online that tumbled out into the in-person world. There was nuclear levels of vitriol over Facebook posts. There were unimaginable hate crimes. I traded messages with others who were writing publicly about the war. I asked about the kind of messages they were getting in private. “It’s bleak,” I heard back, “everybody is in so much pain.”
To be clear, I spent all of my logged on time from a cocoon of comfort and privilege. I wasn’t a Palestinian logging on to see if the world would ignore their suffering once again. I wasn’t Jewish, logging on to discover that friends and fellow activists were talking about Israeli death this past weekend, but often in immensely callous ways. I didn’t have to log on in search of news about loved ones in danger, nor was I viewing images of places that I held dear reduced to rubble.
I talked to friends this past week for whom logging on held much greater stakes than it did for me. Many of them stopped logging on after a day or so. It was too painful.
I don’t blame us for logging on. It makes sense that many of us descended on the very places that we’ve been trained to always return to in our moments of amorphous seeking. But my hunch is that very few of us found what we were looking for online this past week. I suspect that, even if there were gems of connection and solidarity to be found, that your experience was much like mine: some combination of exhausting, dispiriting, isolating and rage inducing.
This isn’t a piece about dumb apps and big tech and whether it should all be burned to the ground3 Nor is it a piece about how none of us should be spending our wild and precious lives lost in somebody else’s algorithmic money making machine. You don’t need that faux-self-righteous shaming from me. We all know that we’re standing on a house of cards, but it’s our collective house of cards. A large chunk of my day job is writing a paid newsletter on a VC-funded internet platform. I’m deeply embedded here. And, in one way or another, many of you are as well.
If your experience of searching for something online this past week (validation, purpose, the extremely human desire to be seen and heard) left you wanting, there’s no reason to be ashamed. To the contrary, there’s a powerful lesson there. The treasure you were longing for wasn’t the problem. You still deserve to find it. And it is out there, though likely not in the noisiest and rawest corners of the Internet.
I might be projecting, but I imagine that you, like me, logged on because we were searching for two very specific things: a sense of agency in a frightening, terror-filled world; and community and belonging in a moment when we all felt so, so alone.
Again, I could be wrong. But if I’m not… how nice of us! Those are incredible things to long for! I love us for our longing.
It’s not our fault if we didn’t find community and agency this past week, particularly online. There’s good news in our failure. It means that our quest isn’t done. It means that we haven’t exhausted our options. It means that we still need one another.
There’s something else I did this past week, completely separate from my scrolling. I talked to a whole lot of people spread out across the country: friends, family members, fellow organizers, many of whom I haven’t talked to for a long while. I talked to friends with deeply personal stakes in the region, and folks who felt far removed from it. I heard stories about how “logging on” this had left folks feeling empty, but I also got to hear about what didn’t, about what action or connection sat on the other side of their longing.
I talked to people who realized that what they craved right now was public protest, particularly protests against America’s role in the current assault on Gaza.
I talked to people who realized that they were longing for their families right now— that they wanted to connect and puzzle together with the people who knew them best.
I talked to people who specifically craved community with other Jews, or other Arabs, or other Gentiles, either those who saw the conflict in the same way or those who might push their perspective.
I talked to a lot of people who logged on and felt unseen or misunderstood. I received phone calls from Jewish friends who feared that if they admitted that they felt sick and frightened by Hamas’ attacks on Israelis, that their support for Palestinians would be questioned. I then hung up the phone and talked to Arab friends who bemoaned that if they said “but you know the Western world never mourns Arab death,” that they’d be accused of being anti-semitic. They were coming from different angles, but they were craving the same thing: a justice-loving space where they could organize for change but also be honest about their own emotions and identity.
I got to hear so many so beautiful longings, some of them satisfiable (many of my conversational partners realized that they had immediate access to the communities they were craving), some of them not. Regardless, they all had two things in common: All of their longings were justified, and none of them could be satisfied by a viral post or an online argument.
In leftist spaces, it’s not uncommon to hear people talk about their “organizing home.” It’s a lovely concept, but it can also feel exclusionary. The phrase often conjures up an image in-person meetings and official organizations. It’s a concept that can feel out of reach for many: because of disability, geography, caregiving responsibilities, class dynamics, etc.
And yes, it’s beautiful when we’re able to follow our longing for connection and agency to a regular, physical space with our neighbors. But that’s not the only place our twin longings can take us. An “organizing home” can take many different forms. It can be you and two friends holding each other accountable for calling your congressperson every day. It can be a few trusted family members banding together and saying “we want to take action, but we have more to learn… let’s do a book club.” It can mean showing up to an in-person meeting in your community, but it can also mean regular participation in a virtual space (I can’t tell you what a joy it has been to get to hold together some of those spaces).
The important variable isn’t whether your organizing home is big or bold enough, it’s whether you’re following your longing for community and action in a way that feels sustainable, authentic, and connected to other people.
As regular readers here know, I run an organizing training community called The Barnraisers Project. Don’t worry, this isn’t a pitch. It’s just an example. If you’re not familiar, the big idea is that I train and support folks from across the world about how to organize for social justice in majority White communities. I first had the idea for it nearly eight years ago, but for an embarrassingly long time, I didn’t really do anything with it. I assumed that if I was going to “start’ something that it had to be official— with all the requisite philanthropic funding and institutional integrity that implied.
After multiple years of languishing around letting perfect be the enemy of the good (and also getting ghosted by just about every progressive foundation across the country), the summer of 2020 happened. Suddenly, a metric ton of White people were trying to figure out how to translate their potential care for racial justice into action. I was worried that a lot of that energy was going to burn out in a short-lived flame of temporary online self-righteousness. As the days of furtive online yelling dragged on, I found myself increasingly bummed out, so I reached out (via email primarily) to see if there was anybody else in my extended networks who might feel the same way I did.
Wanting something to offer the folks who responded, I quickly revamped some trainings I developed for groups to work for far-flung strangers. My question, essentially, was, “would anybody like to try these training out with me?” To my surprise, roughly 100 people did, disproportionally old friends and colleagues. And then, the next time I offered those trainings, 100 more folks found their way to me— except now they were almost all strangers. People kept showing interest, so I kept offering the trainings, and the ball basically rolled from there. It’s not perfect, but it has been profoundly beautiful. And it is very much now my organizing home; an increasingly sprawling community spread out across the world that has made me smarter, more caring, and more accountable in my efforts to contribute to a better world.
You may have picked up on this in that story, but here’s why I don’t shame anybody else for trying to find connection, answers and purpose by logging on. Maybe this wouldn’t have been the case if I was smarter or had better self-control, but personally, I wouldn’t have found my particular organizing home if I hadn’t first wasted time scrolling, validation hunting and judging.
For me, it was only through all that less-intentional seeking that I was able to articulate the kind of space I was longing for. In my case, it was a space I realized I could offer. In your case, it may be a space you can join. You may find it tomorrow, or it may take you a year. And that’s ok. Because the gift of longing isn’t that it lays out all the answers. It’s that it makes us pause. It makes us pay attention. It keeps whispering in our ears until we follow it away from our deep aloneness and towards one another. What a gift.
I often get behind on emails, but if you’re feeling stumped as you search for an organizing home, by all means send me an email and I’ll see if I can help. All I ask is that you’re patient if I take a while to reply (I’m both running a training cohort right now and in the middle of copy edits for my book). But still: I’m at email@example.com and I will reply eventually.
I also would be remiss if I didn’t share that our subscribers’ community— which comes together both in weekly private discussions here and in a truly lovely discord. It is a delightful space that has both helped people find their organizing homes and that, in many ways, has served that function in and of itself. I truly can’t recommend it enough. If you’d like to join us, there are a few different pathways:
If you’ve got a few bucks to spare, you can become a paid subscriber. Thank you so much for considering (this is my day job!).
If you’d like to join and have the means to do so but don’t want to spend your money at Substack, you can either pre-order my book (I think you’ll like it!) and then fill out the thank you survey or donate $50 to The Barnraisers Project (in either case, I’ll comp your membership).
If you don’t have the money (or if sending a few bucks to a random newsletter writer would prevent you from supporting other crucial work— especially aid efforts in Gaza) just email me, no questions asked, at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll comp you.
In the interest of not hiding the ball here, I’m a non-Jewish, non-Palestinian activist with a whole lot to learn. I both oppose the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (and strongly oppose U.S. military aid to Israel) and, as a pacifist and prison industrial complex abolitionist, mourn and condemn all deaths, violence and war crimes in the region, be they committed by Hamas or the Israeli military. I believe it’s important to acknowledge power imbalances and the disproportionality of deaths, but to also stand with all who are mourning right now. I don’t expect or require everybody in this space to be 100% aligned with me on this or any other issues.
One incredible exception (for which I am deeply grateful) were the comments on my newsletter. It’s not that everybody agreed with me (there was both affirmation and critique) but you all were generous and big-hearted and human, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. Once again: we’ve got a special space here, and that wouldn’t be true without lots of people contributing to it thoughtfully.
I mean, sure. We should do that. But that’s not this essay.