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“Nothing Will Ever Change!”

Cape Town, South Africa

In a Facebook conversation last week with some BPFers, my friend Rachel expressed frustration with her chronic cynicism in the face of massive problems. I often feel as Rachel did last week, “No matter what I (or we as humanity) do, nothing will ever change!”

While a healthy dose of skepticism can be useful, the cynic’s extreme focus on the negative had become paralyzing. As we tried to explore the cynic’s usefulness, Rachel said “The cynic’s just piling up the evidence – vs. the Keeling curve and the quantity of cars on 19th Ave (a major North-South thoroughfare), for example… My guess is that underneath all this is a ton of (unexpressed) grief…”

Ah, grief! This naming of an unexpressed feeling seemed to finally break the cynic’s grip. This ability to drop down into the feeling underneath the feeling is a critical strategy that meditators can bring to our activist work. By observing experience at the level of bare sensation, we develop the capacity to feel into underlying emotions. We crack through the cynicism that we have developed as an effective strategy to distance ourselves from the pain of grief.

Susan Piver offers some useful language in distinguishing between the related emotional states of depression and sadness:

When you are able to look under the surface of depression, which has a kind of hard, acrylic-feeling veneer, when you look underneath that what I have found is sadness. And while depression seems unworkable and completely brittle, sadness is soft and tender and very workable.

What is the difference between depression and sadness? I learned a clue about the difference when I read an interview with the feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who was being interviewed on the death of her husband.

The interviewer said, “Aren’t you depressed?” And (I’m paraphrasing here) she said, “No, I’m not depressed, I’m sad.”

When the interviewer wondered what the difference was, she said, “When you’re depressed, nothing has any meaning. But when you’re sad, everything does.”

– Susan Piver on Meditation, Depression, and Sadness

As we study this year under the rubric of The System Stinks, I find it’s also important to look at the systemic conditions that contribute to cynicism, doubt, and depression. In the book Toward Psychologies of Liberation, Mary Watkins and Helene Shulman describe what they call liberation psychologies, psychologies that take systemic, historical, and cultural contexts into account:

While working to understand the interdependent relations between the intrapsychic, interpersonal, community, economic, and environmental contributions to the structure of experience, liberation psychologies turn to the larger frames of culture and history in which these are embedded. Here the psychological legacy of 500 years of colonialism and its evolution into transnational capitalism, and then twenty-first-century globalization weighs heavily in the analysis. Such psychologies turn as well to the particular social and ecological location of individuals and their communities. Resolutely working from an interdependent paradigm, they seek to ground us both in the global waves of history during the last 500 years and in the specific location where the legacies of this history are experienced in the present. The strands of individual, community, cultural, and ecological well-being are held tightly together, and are seen to be necessary to one another. Psychological health is understood to emerge as capacities to create meaning are reignited, hopes are rekindled, and actions forged for achieving peace and economic and social justice. As the chains of racism and economic oppression are cast off, it will be possible to more deeply reclaim cultural histories, traditions, and languages. The hope for peaceful, just, and ecologically vibrant communities that support psychological well-being inspires a set of practices that seek to nourish capacities for dialogue, complex and multifaceted identity formation, critical analysis and action. (p. 10)

In the section on “Psychic Wounds of Colonialism and Globalization,” they analyze the effects for not only victims and perpetrators, but also for bystanders to injustice who are “attempting to live daily life detached from the violence around one by defending against knowing about it too fully or allowing its presence to change the way life is led” (p. 50). Are cynicism and depression not natural responses to hearing that our politicians will likely approve the Keystone XL Pipeline, despite it being “game over” for humans to survive climate change? While depression can have many causes, a psychology that only looks for causes in brain chemistry or interpersonal relationships conveniently ignores systemic causes. Who benefits when cynicism and depression are our default responses to injustice and oppression?

BPFers, what tools do you use personally to crack through the hard exteriors of cynicism, doubt, and depression? How do you experience these as a normal response to global capitalism, colonization, patriarchy, and racism? And if it’s true that our cynicism, doubt, and depression have systemic causes, are there collective tools and rituals you’ve found helpful?

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Comments (11)

  • J. Tyson Casey

    I often think of the phrase “everything changes, because no thing is permanent.” (I think this comes from an article by Nalin Swaris, but I could also be paraphrasing a number of Buddhist authors who have said something similar.) This highlights one of the Buddha’s Three Marks of Existence – Anicca (impermanence). The intention behind this Mark of Existence, I believe, is to highlight that conditions are always changing, always in a state of flux, even if it does not appear to be so on the surface, or with our own eyes. As such, no thing ultimately exists, it is only an illusion or the appearance of existence. In this sense, the capitalist kyriarchy wrecking havoc on our planet does not actually exist, but our collective actions give rise to its validity. This is also true of the State and the economy, which serves the function of validation for something that does not (in ultimate reality) exist. The banks continue to appear as valid constructs, because the State intervenes every time their created/fabricated reality crashes (through finance and/or force), in order to keep the myth alive. The State itself appears to exist because individuals collectively validate it by voting and by believing in the military and police apparatus (both of which serve to enforce the myth of existence with violence). Et cetera….

    I have also felt that the nature of protest has come to further validate the State (or the illusion thereof), in that it tends to be about forcing the State to concede to demands within the current structure (as if the current structure is both legitimate and permanent). This is an oversimplification (and could be unpacked quite a bit). However, another approach I’ve seen involves rendering the State obsolete or at least disrupting the myth by highlighting its illegitimacy through creating something entirely different (or, at least, attempting to do so). I think of resilience-based organizing, community-rights organizing, and even worker-takeover of factories (turning them into worker-owned facilities), which tend to follow a similar strategy of disrupting the current myth by creating new ones in tactical places. These things bring me hope, and it all comes back to the idea that “everything changes, because no thing is permanent” – even the capitalist kyriarchy that is currently diminishing the chances of survival for many species on this planet and continuing to cause suffering for most of the human population (and non-human too, I believe). “Everything changes, because no thing is permanent.” I literally say this as a daily mantra, and find much hope within its truth.

  • Ian Mayes

    I have actually written about this very topic – looking at despair around the possibility for positive social change from a Buddhist kind of perspective. You can read this at:

  • Dawn Haney

    Ian, I also often advocate “taking the long view,” sometimes referencing Sarvodaya’s 500 year peace plan for Sri Lanka. You take it to a whole nother level with an evolutionary approach! Thanks for sharing it here.

    Tyson, as I wrote the title for this piece, I thought about going back to add something about anicca, so I’m glad you brought it up in a thoughtful way here. I find it still bumps up against my activist longing for things to change more speedily according to my desires. While I can agree in theory that there is “no thing” behind the powerful nexus of capitalism and a whole host of other isms, its impacts are still so devastating that my grief becomes intolerable, and I resort to cynicism and doubt so I can avoid the grief. For me, doubt becomes really insidious because I start to doubt the truthfulness of maxims like “everything changes, because no thing is permanent.”

    You should unpack this idea about the problematic nature of protest (at least the kind of protest that is about making demands of the state) – maybe for an article for Turning Wheel Media? :) I tend to think both strategies have a role, as often there’s a need to get the State to concede to enough demands so we have a bit of breathing room to create something new. For me, the problem comes in the framing of State concessions as the end goal, rather than a means to an end.

  • Jeff

    Despair, doubt, and cynicism are uninvited but inevitable companions to political activism. Is it not natural to grieve for the ghastly oppression of billions of people, for the ruin of our planet, for the coming destruction of beaches, species, and human viability in places like Cape Town, where the title picture was taken? Or to wonder if resistance is futile as machines of war and exploitation grind on while so many swallow the lies whole and seem only to want to escape by “relaxing” with the latest cultural inanities?

    Of course, the truth is that even if social change is not happening fast enough for us, things will change, if only because the rapacious practices of international capitalism are unsustainable. Fundamental progress seems a very long way off in the United States, but in the global South, where crises are currently the sharpest, there have been inspiring successes as popular movements have begun to overcome the worst abuses of our mutual overlords and take back control of life’s necessities (like water in Bolivia).

    If Americans don’t wake up until 30% of us live in poverty or until Kansas gets too hot to grow corn, then that’s how long it will take here. Like the psychological torment that motivates individuals to begin the personal work of transformation, it often has to get to the point where a society simply has no other choice. Change or die.

    So how do we activists keep going in these lean times when it seems most people are just quietly trying to get by? I agree with what others have said on these pages: don’t stay isolated, find a community of those who share our vision of social justice, which takes some patient exploration outside our usual haunts and a willingness to make common cause despite doctrinal differences. Start small: persuade a friend or two to look at world and local events for what they are. Don’t depend on big glorious victories to fuel our commitment; we may not see any in our lifetime, but the groundwork we lay will make them possible. Above all, be ready to stand beside those who are fighting for survival right now – we must learn to think and act collectively and compassionately in order to move beyond the alienation that keeps us all lonely, frustrated, and enslaved.

    Thanks for encouraging us to discuss this important issue, Dawn.

  • Jason

    Great post – thank you very much for posting it. It really touched on something that I have been thinking about quite a bit recently – how to live with a deep seated cynicism bred from opening my eyes to the injustices and suffering of the world.

    I agree with the above posters about starting small, finding groups of similar-minded people, and looking at the problem from a larger perspective. I received a great piece of advice from a supervisor of mine, who also studies Buddhism. Our work involves working with populations who are mandated to see us and tend to be bitter, angry, and resentful of the system that brought them to us [I apologize for the vagueness of my speech but I need to respect the privacy of the individuals I work with]. My job involved meeting large groups of disinterested and disengaged individuals, and it really felt that way. I started to feel the weight of what I perceived to be an ineffective system and developed a very cynical attitude towards my work. At a meeting, my supervisor acknowledged this and told us – “You should all look into yourselves and figure out what you define success as in this line of work. Mine are different from yours.” Upon hearing this, I realized that the goals I had going into my job were unrealistic (and for many, many reasons outside of my sphere of influence). I was trying to reach entire groups at a time – now, if one individual meets with me after a group meeting and talks to me for just a few minutes, I consider the entire outing a success. As we are all interconnected, I believe that affecting a single strand in the web of life strengthens the entire structure as a whole, and that belief sustains me and allows me to continue in my endeavors.

  • Max Airborne

    Thanks so much for starting this conversation, Dawn.

    Yes yes yes to what Tyson said about rendering the state obsolete by creating new systems, new ways of being that don’t rely on it. This is what cuts through the cynicism and the numbness, and allows me to access both the sadness and the joy. Growing food. Making stuff. Sharing it. Connecting with my neighbors, folks with whom I might not otherwise interact in my identity-based social world, about their cat who just died. Listening. Cultivating and allowing a lived awareness of our shared humanity. Cultivating healing in the face of oppression. This is the root from which I want my political analysis to spring. It’s often been tempting in my life to get rhetorical and dogmatic, but this has caused burnout, cynicism, joylessness, depression. The heart needs to be involved. Healing needs to be involved. Change is constant, but often soooo slow. We can’t wait for the oppressive systems to die. We need to start living the new ones, now. Keeping our eyes on the prize of systemic change, and also finding the ways in which aspects of the prize are accessible now, in the realm of the interpersonal, and smaller systems we create and rely on. It’s all happening at once.

  • J. Tyson Casey

    Dawn, I agree a lot with your distinction re: means and ends. And, I would still want to unpack even that distinction some more. I’d love to write a piece unpacking all of this. Thank you for the offer/nudge.

    Max, I think you unpacked some of what I was getting at too. Really wonderful to read.

    All, it is nourishing to hear that different people are grappling with this, and that there is a growing understanding of the importance of like-minded community in fostering both resilience and creativity as we move through this late-stage capitalism. I certainly struggle with despair/hopelessness, and to me this is part of my Buddhist practice, which is informed and supported by Sangha/community. Thank you.

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    I am loving this discussion!

    Jason “Upon hearing this, I realized that the goals I had going into my job were unrealistic (and for many, many reasons outside of my sphere of influence). I was trying to reach entire groups at a time – now, if one individual meets with me after a group meeting and talks to me for just a few minutes, I consider the entire outing a success.” I think it’s great to be able to recognize when your goals are an overreach for a particular situation, whether it’s a job or a particular protest/social action or anything else. At the same time, something about what you wrote struck a nerve with me. Because it reminded me of all the coercive “downshifting” I was directed towards, or simply told to do, when I was working both with children in the county protection system, and also with immigrants in the adult basic ed system. Again and again, the clear seeing of injustices by myself and other colleagues was met with polite nods and similar kinds of messages as your boss offered you. These folks essentially played the role of pressure release valves. They kept the rest of us feeling good enough to keep going, and to put all of our eggs into the “small victory” basket Whether they had given up on advocating for systemic changes, or simply never saw the need for them in the first place, what they ended doing – by playing the roles they did – was maintain the status quo.

    I eventually grew tired of all that, and quite, quite cynical, to the point where even those small, but life giving experiences – like a student getting into higher education or finishing their citizenship studies – lost meaning for me. I could barely celebrate because I was so livid at the crooked systems that limited our possibilities and closed far more doors than they opened.

    I guess I write this because the kind of “realistic” approach that you speak of can easily slide into keeping things basically the same. Which eventually gets to you, even if you find ways to celebrate the smaller victories, and individual successes.

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    Max “Growing food. Making stuff. Sharing it. Connecting with my neighbors, folks with whom I might not otherwise interact in my identity-based social world, about their cat who just died. Listening. Cultivating and allowing a lived awareness of our shared humanity. Cultivating healing in the face of oppression. This is the root from which I want my political analysis to spring. It’s often been tempting in my life to get rhetorical and dogmatic, but this has caused burnout, cynicism, joylessness, depression. The heart needs to be involved. Healing needs to be involved. ”

    This! Absolutely. Whenever I hear folks putting down these kinds of things, or finding far too many excuses to skewer attempts to create smaller-scale “alternative” ways of society building, I tend to think they’ve gone way too much into their heads.

  • Dawn Haney

    Oh, so much good stuff here, thank you all!

    This morning, I’m seeing Max’s comments (Grow food! Make stuff! Connect!) and Jason’s comments about reframing work goals to be more focused on connection as similar recommendations. That is, to focus on the particulars of life, the things that sustain us physically and emotionally, the connections between one being and another being. It has a similar feel as a return to focus on the breath as an anchor. Just notice this breath. Then another one. Then the next.

    Maybe I see these as related because they all seem hard for me, particularly at times when doubt is rampant. They’ve been all been hijacked for me – it’s hard to feed myself after a childhood of learning body hatred and disordered eating; connections feel tenuous to me after a lifetime of moving to follow the jobs that capitalism offers; and even after 10 years of practicing with meditation, the breath feels edgy to me because of its relation to my anxiety and panic. Which is why a focus on these is especially important, as they are a direct path to needed healing.

    Yet as Nathan also notes, all of these things can serve as escape routes or pressure values, and just be ways to help us avoid showing up. It seems intention is key here.

  • Kiva

    I approach major problems like climate change with an attitude of “the end result does not matter.” I have no control over something as large as that. All I know is that I control my own actions and therefore my individual actions and the effort I put into those actions are what matter.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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