2021 Center Update: Ring the Bell of Hope… Again, and Again

December 15th, 2021

This fall, in one of my first trips to visit my coworkers from the Ayni Institute in Boston, I stopped by New York City to visit one of my closest friends, Eric Stoner. And I was sitting on his couch, staying up late into the night as we processed our lives together, when I had a big realization: grief often hits after the storm has passed, when we have to start picking up the pieces destroyed by suffering, when we have actually survived and won. Amid new and wonderful possibilities, we can be hit with an unexpected sorrow.

I feel deeply connected to Eric in many ways. I find in him a kindred spirit, in that he is a person who has tried to deeply understand his tradition, both spiritually and politically. Like me, he was raised Catholic and was later radicalized and became a deep embedded part of a broad community that includes the Catholic Workers, leaders like the Berrigan brothers, and organizations that have tried to keep together a nonviolent tradition of social justice that is both strategic and principled–like the War Resisters’ League, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Veterans for Peace, Voices for Creative Nonviolence, and others. Like me, Eric saw that it was hard to find a place in this dying tradition, where many elders–like his mentor Dan Berrigan–have left us, or are reaching the end of their lives, and many of the organizations and institutions that have sustained this community have also been growing smaller, weaker, and are dying out.

But at the same time there has also been a blossoming of new energy in nonviolent resistance, with new movements arising from the global justice movement, immigrant rights, Black Lives Matter, and the dozens of movements flourishing to fight against dictatorships and political corruption throughout the world. It was in this environment, with a couple close friends and no money (at the time he was living in community at a convent, a lifestyle of “voluntary simplicity”), Eric made a very unique decision. Together they had a dream to create a journalistic website that could write about this tradition of nonviolence–that could lift up the best articles about what is happening with all these incredible experiments with strategic and principled nonviolence. They called the website Waging Nonviolence.

It was risky to create a new journalistic endeavor when most newspapers and magazines were crumbling under the weight of the new media environment. Other than being a naturally good writer, with a deep rootedness in the history of his tradition, he did not seem like the best candidate for a huge entrepreneurial endeavor. And there was another issue, something that Eric doesn’t talk about much–an important part of his life that he doesn’t want to be controlled by. Eric has cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that compromises your immune system, and can bring a whole host of physical problems that can put you in the hospital, unable to breathe and spitting up blood. The average life expectancy for people with this disease is in the mid-forties.Throughout the time we have been friends, Eric has had to spend two hours a day doing lung treatments where he hooks himself up to a machine, and coughs up and disposes of phlegm.

From the time we first met, I could see that this condition, despite all the pain and difficulty that comes with it, carries a special gift: Eric is deeply committed to his calling, like few I have ever seen. Eric rarely speaks about death, but it was clear to me from the beginning that he was deeply, urgently motivated to contribute something positive to the world with whatever time has been given to him. So with only the support of government health insurance for the poor (Medicaid) and few other resources of any kind, he set out to do it. Living in itself was risky for Eric, so risking this dream at this time seemed just worth it.

Fast forward twelve years, and Waging Nonviolence has become a sort of dream come true. Be careful what you wish for. The site routinely presents the best writing in the field of nonviolence, from people like George Lakey, Frida Berrigan, and many new writers embedded in movements across the world. And it has been a place where my brother Mark and I publish many of our articles. People often comment to me about Waging Nonviolence, comparing it to other websites with ten times the staff. I have to remind them that it’s a miracle the site exists at all, and that it is fueled by the special powers of Eric’s brain, his co-editor Bryan Farrell, and all his many friends in social movements around the world, writing for little to no money. They have even created a system of linking many older peace and nonviolence groups together into a network that is showcased on the site. When the U.S. faced the threat of coup d’état last year after the presidential election, Waging Nonviolence published some of the leading voices on preventing a coup, and their pieces went viral, bringing hundreds of thousands of readers to the website. The popularity of the articles funneled thousands into the Choose Democracy trainings and led to widespread mainstream coverage of this work.

When COVID-19 hit, Eric, being immunocompromised, was confined to his apartment in Brooklyn, where he was undergoing treatment with a new experimental drug for cystic fibrosis. This new drug has shown promising results for most, and miraculous results for a small percentage of patients–and thank God—Eric was one of them. He saw remarkable progress in the following months. Instead of the gradual decline in lung capacity he’d experienced since his teenage years, his lungs began to improve. Eric began exercising more, gaining strength and losing weight. And he was able to decrease the frequency of his formerly daily lung treatments, and cut the time of these sessions down to less than one hour a week.

After a few months of this, a new possibility arose. It looked as though Eric might become a rare case of recovery to full life expectancy, and would no longer need to feel like the disease was constantly in the background, looking over his shoulder. This would mean no more periodic CF-related hospital visits and medical emergencies, no more planning his life around intense treatments. Around this time the COVID-19 vaccine became available, and Eric became part of the first wave of people to get it and his world started opening up a little.

Then something unexpected happened: Eric found himself feeling depressed and unmotivated. He was suddenly not as moved by his vision for his baby, Waging Nonviolence. He was having a hard time thinking about his future. And he could not figure it out: Why am I depressed right now when everything is getting better?

Around this time, he happened to visit Boston and go out to coffee with Carlos Saavedra, one of my best friends and coworkers. Carlos had been an undocumented student and became one of the leaders who birthed the DREAM Movement. Carlos co-founded the largest network of undocumented young people in history, called United We Dream, which trained thousands of DREAMers to tell their stories and become leaders–which was kind of like a coming out of the closet experience. Carlos had been at the forefront of one of the biggest successes in progressive movements in a generation, a movement that pushed President Obama to implement DACA in 2012, providing work permits and legal residency to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrant youth, providing new pathways to employment, college education, and empowering them to think about their futures in a whole new way.

And then Carlos saw something surprising. In the months that followed, many of those young people went into a depression. And what Carlos realized, talking with those youth and hearing their stories, is that we have to grieve in a different way, after we get what we want–as we are picking up the pieces in the wake of disaster, even if the future seems full and new. Because we can’t fully feel the pain of our circumstances when we are in the middle of an emergency, when we are just trying to stay alive. We have to transition from a liminal space–a space of continual uncertainty and adaptation to circumstances we can’t control–where there is little space for thinking about the future. In liminality, our attention is consumed by the challenge of the moment. Only when we are no longer fueled by adrenaline, in the urgency of the present struggle, can we begin to imagine the future. And after the wave of joy, there can come a period of disorientation, as we transition to using new muscles, feeling out new ways of motivation, new ways of thinking about ourselves, of imagining our future.

So when Eric shared with Carlos about the unexpected depression he’d been facing, Carlos suggested that maybe what Eric was feeling was similar to what so many DREAMers had gone through–and this suggestion struck a deep chord. This gave Eric hope. Now, in recent months, Eric is excited again about Waging Nonviolence, and his vision for his life, but from a new place, informed by a new perspective, gained from the journey through liminal space, and a special kind of grief.

Talking to Eric, I realized that this process has been happening for so many as our society reemerges from the pandemic. I see this pattern in the millions that are now reporting feelings of depression, and lack of motivation to return to work, or to reconnect with communities and relationships disrupted by the pandemic. I see this in my roommate Danielle, who is reevaluating her life after the death of her father, who her family cared for, bedridden with MS for over a decade. I see this in me, as I have to evaluate what my life will be now that I feel my community life post-pandemic is thinner, with fewer people at our centering prayer group, fewer visits from friends, a different terrain for my professional work, and a difficult transition in my relationship with my intimate partner. All of this in the midst of great new possibilities.

Sometimes I feel like my writing is very repetitive–that I say the same things over and over again. I am constantly writing about the Paschal Mystery (life, passion, death, and resurrection), or, as Richard Rohr puts it: Order, Disorder, Reorder, or as Ayni Institute names it, the Seasons of Life. What all of these metaphors teach me is that we all must grieve, but in grieving, in compassionately holding our pain, in entering into the liminality, we can reach the other side. We can be resurrected. Without a hope in this, without knowing others that have also been reborn, died and resurrected, it seems impossible to accept the process. We need hope, a faith–not in our heads, but in our bodies. I need to hear it again and again, like a bell being rung many times a day. It is often in the life stories of others that we find this faith–their lives ring the bell for us. This is the central narrative of Christianity: that if we die in love, we can be resurrected into a new, more powerful and connected being. So in the midst of this new grief of the post pandemic world, let us ring the bell of hope, again, and again.

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