Come Hell and High Water, We Won’t Surrender Hope


Chicago organizer Kelly Hayes forms a heart with her hands as children in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center wave to Christmas carolers on December 13, 2019. (Photo: Sangi)

As another decade becomes the stuff history books are made of, many of us are doing what we always do at this time of year: shopping, visiting loved ones, and indulging in the annual practice of cursing the outgoing year. For some of us, this time of year brings renewed grief or renewed hope, or both. For many, it’s a time of accounting for what we’ve won, built and lost. “Best of” lists and think pieces abound. We know the routine, so we shuffle through the spectacle, anxious and aching, and, at times, desensitized, as we attempt to conjure up a bit of joy in an era of collapse.  

When I gather with friends on New Year’s Eve, we all take a moment before midnight to name something we plan to leave behind in the previous year and something we hope to take with us. I am thinking about that today as I ponder what it means to close out a decade, as opposed to a year. I was in my twenties in the 2000s and making too many terrible decisions to want to enumerate anything gained or lost. A friend told me recently that she thought we had grown up together in the last ten years, which was humorous, since we are in our 30’s and 40’s, respectively, but it was also true. In my 20’s, I was just surviving and experiencing trauma — and undoubtedly causing a lot of harm too. In the last decade, I’ve done the kind of trying and failing that helps you figure out who you want to be. I have made (many, many) mistakes, but I’ve also been willing to stare down most of those mistakes and learn from them. I have come to understand that we are not the things we’ve done — for better or for worse. We’re all just people who are hopefully doing their best, because none of us are inherently anything.

I’ve also learned that folks who believe they’re “good people” often think decency is an identity, rather than an ongoing obligation, and fail accordingly. So I resolved to never have that problem. 

In the last ten years, I’ve seen movements rise and fall. I’ve been in the streets chanting and marching more times than I can count. I’ve been to jail repeatedly, but always for something I believed in. At some point, I realized that I really was going to leave heroin behind in the previous decade and became less afraid of myself. I sat in protest encampments with vulnerable people awaiting police raids. I trained to become a street medic and ran triage in an alleyway after the police attacked protesters at the NATO summit. I struggled with my relationship and fell in love all over again, much harder than before. I got knocked on my ass more than once, but only punched someone in the face once, and he had it coming. I found a chosen family to build with and learned who to anchor myself to when things fell apart. I helped free people from the grip of the prison industrial complex and grew to love one of those people like family. 

I lost my father, and with him, a piece of myself. 

I also lost one of my best friends and was reminded that, sometimes, there’s no comfort in the reality that something’s not your fault, because when something is your fault, there’s often something you can do about it.

If this sounds like a diary entry I am writing for my own sake, I can’t say I regret that. I became a writer in the sixth grade writing stories that I wanted to read. Then, as now, I’ve been lucky that others sometimes get something out of the words I throw together. From the friend in junior high who eagerly read from the spiral notebook I was turning into a shitty vampire novel to the people who take the time to read what I write now — it means everything that these ideas I pour out of my head mean something to people other than myself. I lost my ability to write for a time in the late 2000s. It had become too enmeshed in my addiction to opiates and I had to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I didn’t think I would ever get it back, and I did my best to make peace with that. But in the last decade, I’ve become a writer again. I’ve been published in publications big and small and my work has been cited in Harvard Law Review and taught in college classes. I also work for a publication I love dearly. The tattered, scrawny version of me who barely survived the 2000s wouldn’t have dared to hope for any of that.

I also learned to cherish hope and to ignore people who caution against it. Because the things we do from a place of disciplined hope are ends in themselves. Even when we fail, if people know that we care, and that we are fighting for them, that is an end in itself. When we embody and prefigure what we think the world ought to be, that’s worth something, even when our movements fall apart and the state falls down on us like a hammer.

Come hell and high water, we are worth fighting for. 

We are empathetic creatures, not simply because we are social animals dependent on cooperation for survival — which is something we would do well to remember — but also because our consciousness is so broad that it’s almost unbearable. We take in more than we could ever comprehend, and it is the comfort we find in each other that creates cohesion amid the chaos. Where can a person find peace in a world endlessly at war? We find it in each other, as we always have. We need each other to survive, but survival is not enough, and we are capable of so much more. 

As someone who’s part of a community of people who are determined to make the world better, I hope that you all have such people, or that you find them in new decade. Knowing that my friends and co-strugglers exist, and that we have each other, gets me out of bed in the morning. And because of them, I go to bed some days knowing that we really did make a difference. There are people walking free because of the love and purpose we find together, and come what may, there is still a great deal of love and freedom to be had. And as people who are determined to reduce suffering, build community and do good, we have never been as important or as necessary as we are right now. I take comfort in that, in spite of climate catastrophes and the rise of fascism and my own heartbreak. I take comfort in us, even as the world falls down.

I believe we can be who we say we are, even on our worst days. And if humanity’s last act is being written in real time, I hope you’ll pick up a pen, because you have something to say about how these pages read. Who are we and what is any of this for? You’re writing that story too, whether you’re typing it or not.

So as I sit here on Christmas Eve, grieving and also grateful, I am hopeful, because hope isn’t something I am willing to surrender. Because once you’ve lost hope, you have none to share with others. Recently, my friends and I sang Christmas carols outside a juvenile detention center. It was a cold night in Chicago, and it broke our hearts to see caged young people pounding on their windows, longing for connection, but we could also see what it meant to them that we were there. For a couple of hours, their world was a bit brighter than it had been, and because of that, ours was too.

In the new decade, I am determined to grow the things I want to share and to find hope in the struggle, even when it’s a losing battle. Because wherever we’re headed, the things we do along the way are the stuff that life is made of. Let’s make it all it can be, for all of us, for as many decades as we can.