The Human Stain

It’s slowly dawned on me, after months of complaining to my friends and colleagues, that I want to leave the activist group I volunteer with. The problem isn’t that I disagree with any of the ideological points. It’s the people. While most of the people who show up for the occasional meeting are fine and pleasant, there are a couple of personalities that really grate on me. And naturally, they are the ones who show up for everything.

Now when I go to a meeting, it’s with a sense of dread in the pit of my stomach, and by the end I feel worn out, not inspired. I can manage to live with the world’s inequality and the breakdown of the ecosystem, but I feel like I’m losing any desire to keep up with a community built around good intentions when it comes with such toxic behavior. Extricating myself means I’ll have to deal with a bit of awkward social backlash, but my bigger fear is that I’ve finally hit the end of my own desire to do anything with a social justice agenda.

First of all, I think it’s commendable that you hold such strong ideals that you are willing to work at bringing them into reality. Aren’t ideals wonderful? I mean, philosophical systems and virtues and big ideas and impassioned belief systems are all such airy, delightful things. The problem is that they have to exist within humans for them to do any good at all, and I think we can all agree, humans kind of suck. Humans are not airy things, they are by nature creatures of mire and earth, and the attempt to fit those ideas and those humans together can often go awry.

So back in the nineteenth century, things were so bad that reform seemed insufficient. Miranda Carter tells the story in George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm of the Khodynka Tragedy in Russia, which occurred during what was supposed to be a celebration, with beer and food, for Nicholas II’s coronation. When the starving people were told that the food was running out, a stampede ensued, and over 1,300 people were killed. The bodies were simply carted away, and the celebration continued. And some people, when trying to figure out how to create a world in which such things no longer happened, had the wonderful idea of a world of equality, full stop.

Communism on paper was one thing. The problem was with the humans.

I was thinking of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon as I was reading your letter. Koestler was one of the first believers in communism (he went to jail in Spain for spying for the communists and faced down a death sentence, so he was pretty committed) to acknowledge that things had gone wrong. While so many intellectuals continued to believe and support Stalin and to sign on to sentiments like “the ends justify the means,” Koestler was brave enough to admit that if these were the means, the ends everyone was praying for would never be. And then he wrote a book, a marvelous book, admitting he had been wrong and dealing deeply with the disappointment that comes when you realize human beings had once again ruined what was in all other respects a good idea.

And of course Koestler offers another illustration of this kind of contradiction in own biography as well. He possessed immense talent and bravery as a writer. He also had an awful habit of raping women. As a reader, it is difficult sometimes to separate the writing from the writer. It’s the combination that is so tricky, because the books cannot be simply excised from the body that created it.

That is not to say you should give up your activism! Or that all is hopeless. Your impulse is good. Your aim to try to leave the world a slightly better place than how you found it is a sound one. But in order to keep those ideals in place and give them room to breathe, you will have to understand that any group of activists is also a group of people, as screwed up as any other. Not idealizing the people is an important part of not burning out entirely. It’s important to see the dividing line, as blurry as it is, between the ideas and the humans those ideas are inhabiting.

If you’d like Jessa to ponder your question, write to “Kind Reader” at

Illustration by Thea Brine.