In today's turbulent world it's hard not to feel like we're going backwards; after decades of striving, justice and equality still seem like far off goals. What keeps us going when times get tough? How have the leaders and unsung heroes of world-changing political movements persevered in the face of cynicism, fear, and seemingly overwhelming odds? In The Impossible Will Take a Little While, they answer these questions in their own words, creating a conversation among some of the most visionary and eloquent voices of our times. Today, more than ever, we need their words and their wisdom.
In this revised edition, Paul Rogat Loeb has comprehensively updated this classic work on what it's like to go up against Goliath -- whether South African apartheid, Mississippi segregation, Middle East dictatorships, or the corporations driving global climate change. Without sugarcoating the obstacles, these stories inspire hope to keep moving forward.
Think of this book as a conversation among some of the most visionary and eloquent voices of our times -- or any time: Contributors include Maya Angelou, Diane Ackerman, Marian Wright Edelman, Wael Ghonim, VÃ¡av Havel, Paul Hawken, Seamus Heaney, Jonathan Kozol, Tony Kushner, Audre Lorde, Nelson Mandela, Bill McKibben, Bill Moyers, Pablo Neruda, Mary Pipher, Arundhati Roy, Dan Savage, Desmond Tutu, Alice Walker, Cornel West, Terry Tempest Williams, and Howard Zinn.
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THE IMPOSSIBLE WILL TAKE A LITTLE WHILEA Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear
BASIC BOOKSCopyright © 2004 Paul Rogat Loeb
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Slender Thread
* * *
I'm afraid of losing Louise. Losing her. A shorthand for an avalanche of hurt, the phrase sounds too casual, the equivalent of misplacing a set of keys or an umbrella. I suppose it's my fundamental belief in the uniqueness of people that makes me cherish how irreplaceable they are. Louise has many talents, a lively mind, a quirky and unusual point of view, and a generous heart. I don't want life to lose her. I don't want society to lose her. I don't want to lose her from the pageant of humankind.
We use only a voice and a set of ears, somehow tied to the heart and brain, but it feels like mountaineering with someone who has fallen, a dangling person whose hands you are gripping in your own. But if she truly wishes to die? We don't hear from her when she's not depressed. In stabler times, I don't think she would choose death. But I respect her right to choose, and I tell her so.
"Look, you can always kill yourself. That's one option tonight. Why don't we put that up on the shelf for a moment and talk about what some other options might be."
Because she feels bereft of them, I want her to have choices. Choice is a signature of our species. We choose to live,sometimes we choose our own death, but most of the time we make choices just to prove choice is possible. Above all else, we value the right to choose one's destiny. The very young and some lucky few may find their days opening one onto another like a set of ornate doors, but most people make an unconscious vow each morning to get through the day's stresses and labors intact, without becoming overwhelmed or wishing to escape into death. Everybody has thought about suicide, or knows somebody who committed suicide, and then felt "pushed another inch, and it could have been me." As Emile Zola once said, some mornings you first have to swallow your toad of disgust before you can get on with the day. We choose to live. But suicidal people have tunnel vision-no other choice seems possible. A counselor's job is to put windows and doors in that tunnel.
"Options?" She says the word as if it were too large for her mouth. It probably seems tragically impersonal for what she is feeling. "You mean like eating dinner?" she asks acidly.
"Have you had anything to eat today?"
A dry little laugh. "I bought some lamb chops but couldn't face cooking them. I don't want to eat something more nervous than I am." I laugh. Her delivery was perfect. She laughs again. It is barely more than a chuckle.
"Cold ..." She launches the word like a dark cloud, not attached to anything special, a nimbus of pure pain.
"How come so cold and lonely tonight?"
"I'm always lonely, lonelier than life," she says faintly; then rallying a little, she explains, "When I worked at Montessori, I used to meet people there, or when my kids were little, through their activities. Now I don't meet anyone. Not at work in that pathetic office. My job is horrible. Not hard, you know, just the same rain barrel full of soak everyday, boring and lonely, but it's the only one I could find. There's nothing out there for a middle-aged woman, and the minute they learn I've been hospitalized, they're afraid to hire me, like I'm going to napalm their filing cabinets or Crazy Glue their customers' thumbs to the counter or something."
A thought she has obviously entertained in some detail.
"I understand. You hate your job, you don't make friends there, and it's hard to find a new one. Every workday must feel like a wasteland." "Oppressive," she corrects. Not too little of a good thing, too much of a bad.
"Oppressive. Maybe we can figure out some other work ..."
"It's hopeless. I've tried everywhere. There's nothing."
Before I can reply, she swerves to: "... and I haven't had a date in years, haven't been laid since I don't know when. And then there are my kids. I mean, they're teens, and suddenly Mom's a drag. We fight all the time. About ridiculous things, small things. I don't even know what we're fighting about half the time. They don't want me to hug and kiss them anymore. I can understand that, but it hurts."
Breathless, she sounds like a child trying to tell a story faster than her tumbling words. I was rushing her. She wasn't finished with her lamentation. She still needs to be heard, so I sit quietly and listen, a borrowed heart.
"There's no point to my life. I'm not doing anything of value with it. No one would miss me. No one would care if I were gone. Well, that's not true, it might change how a couple of people feel-give my ex a few sleepless nights, send a message to my Neanderthal boss, make my kids feel sorry about how cruel they can be ..."
Magical thinking-the belief that suicide will change a relationship with someone. One of the warning signs. "I'm lonelier than life," she says again. She likes the phrase. "How do I get out of this?" she bleats. A primal cry, not a question. Then she says almost too low to hear, "I just want the pain to end. I only want to lose consciousness."
"What a heavy burden that must be. I can hear how low you're feeling, how meaningless life seems, how bleak things look. I'm so sorry you're suffering like this."
"Promise you won't send the police," she says, reading my mood.
"How about if I promise that I won't, and you promise not to give me reason to?" She doesn't answer.
"Too much?" I ask.
"Yeah," she says. Kindly, not critically. Her tone says: We are in this together. "I just don't want to be alone right now ... in these last minutes." I think she said minutes.
"I'm worried about you," I say. "How about if I send someone over to be with you?" The tinkling of ice cubes against glass, and a small sip between sniffles. I didn't realize she was drinking. She doesn't sound drunk, but the alcohol won't help her mood and it might give her the wrong kind of courage.
"I'm not at home," she says. "Anyway, it's too late for that. I put my coat on, but I don't need to, do I, to be warm when I fly." She sounds wrung-out, exhausted, giving up. "At least it won't hurt much."
"Won't hurt much?"
"I took a bunch of Tylenol ..."
My heart starts to pound, and with a huge effort at control I ask: "How much Tylenol did you take?"
"I don't know," she whines, "a bunch, enough."
That's it. I can't stand the risk any longer. Every call with Louise has seemed this dire, a last call for help, and she has survived. But suppose tonight is the exception, suppose this is the last of last times? What is different tonight? I'm not sure. Then it dawns on me. Something small. I'm frightened by how often she has been using the word "only," a word tight as a noose. Without letting her hear, I notify the police to trace the call and accompany her to the hospital, where a doctor will give her yet another type of medication.
"I'll stay with you." Which problem to focus on? Which section of the tunnel to drill windows in? Her job? Her family problems? Maybe her sense of isolation. The outer one, I mean, the one that can be eased by friends and acquaintances. The inner one is another matter. So often loneliness comes from being out of touch with parts of oneself. We go searching for those parts in other people, but there's a difference between feeling separate from others and separate from oneself.
"You said no one would care if you died. But I would care."
"I bet you say that to all the callers," she says, mustering a touch of coyness.
"Not so. You and I have had some good talks over the past few months."
Leaning on the desk, I focus my eyes on the wood grain's many streaks and knots. If it had color, it would look like a Navajo blanket. Hard as I try to concentrate solely on hearing, sights keep trickling in. So does the fragrance of coffee brewing in the kitchen. The long vowels of the wind. The chatter of the Venetian blinds against a drafty window frame.
"Yes," she says, "you've been swell. You've been my only friend, well, not friends exactly, not to you, I mean I'm just one of ..."
"You'd be surprised how well you can get to know someone over the telephone. I bet you've gotten to know me a little, too, and the other counselors."
"Yes," she says, "I have actually. You always sound so calm and even. I envy how together you must be. My life is shooting out of my hands, and I wish I could have your ... spirit level."
"I'm not always level. Believe me, my life has problems, too. It's easier to be calm when someone else is in trouble."
"Oh," she says, with a mixture of surprise and relief. "Anyway, you're a good person: patient, and kind, and strong . . . "
"So are you. All those things."
"Strong? That's a good one. If you could see how weak I am ..." Her voice trails away.
"Amazingly strong." Be careful, I think, not to use the past tense. She might interpret that as an obituary. "Look how you've been fighting the torrents of depression-for years. That takes such courage. You've been working during that time, raising two kids, surviving the nightmare of an ugly divorce. Okay, you've lost jobs, but you've picked yourself up and found new jobs. You've even volunteered during the flood-filling sandbags and making sandwiches, I think you said once-and you've found the time and energy and heart to do volunteer work, and helped other people in trouble. You've been heroic. You're being strong tonight, calling us. Given how bad you're feeling, that takes real strength. I admire your courage."
"Admire?" she says, letting the word hover a long moment while she considers it. "You wouldn't want to live my life. It's only bad choices ... except ..." Sniffling.
"Death is always a possibility, but not the best."
Silence. I can feel her thinking it over.
"Lonelier than life, you said. Why don't we think of a few ways to help you solve that problem," I suggest. Broaden the perspective. The hardest job when someone is depressed.
"There aren't any."
"Sure there are." Off the top of my head, I list some ways for her to ease her loneliness-through classes, volunteer work, athletics, music, nature centers, city projects, and such. Not one appeals to her. I didn't think any would. Nonetheless, I ask her to consider the list and arrange it in order of preference, "even though we'll agree that you're too tired and fed up to do any of them and they all sound bad anyway." Despite her strong resistance to each item, she goes through the motions of ranking them, and that distracts her a little.
"Will you hold on?" she asks abruptly. "There's someone at the door."
Damn, the police. That was fast-she must be at home after all. Maybe I didn't need to send them. And she'll be angry, she'll feel lied to and betrayed. She does. I hear her screaming at me, at the telephone, at the world. She calls me a liar, and she's right. I lied to her. Not about what mattered, only about the trace, and only because her life is in danger, and only because I deduced that some part of her craves life or she wouldn't have called.
Maybe I could have calmed her and talked her round? Maybe someone else would have prevailed, someone who can do this slow tango of life and death with more grace and cunning. Suppose the hospital releases her right away and she heads straight for the gorge? Knowing and not knowing about callers, that's what gets to me. My chest feels rigid as a boat hull, my ribs tense. Taking a large breath and letting it out slowly, I press my open palms against my face, rub the eyebrows, then the cheekbones and jaw, and laugh. Not a ha-ha laugh, a small sardonic one, the kind we save for the ridiculous, as I catch myself slipping into a familiar trap. I did fine. I did the best I could. Maybe the best anyone could tonight.
My shoulders feel skewered, and a long grinding pain twitches down my right side. Rolling my head in slow circles, twisting my shoulders, stretching my arms, arching my spine, I realize that during the past two hours my back never touched the chair. The perfect recipe for backache. She'll hate me, hate me, I think, as I get up stiffly and go to the kitchen for tea. Yes, but she'll be alive to hate me. Until the next time, anyway, the next rock-bottom night when she longs to fly.
Helping Louise survive is always an ordeal. Tonight she sounded even more determined and death-bound than usual. It was the right choice. I think. Maybe. On the write-up sheet, under "Caller," I write "Louise," put the letter H for "high" in the box marked "suicide risk," attach a yellow Lethality Assessment sheet, and add a few details of the call. Pressing my fingertips to my face, I push again on the brow bones, as if I could rearrange them, but they ache from a place I can't reach with my hands.
A few weeks later, a new postcard on the Crisis Center bulletin board catches my eye. On one side is a reproduction of the Edward Hopper painting Nighthawks, in which three lonely souls sit drinking coffee in an overlit diner. Turning the card over, I find a neat, even handwriting, in blue ink, addressed to the agency. I'm writing to thank whoever the counselor was I spoke with ... Notes to Suicide Prevention frequently begin that way. But when the large open loops and rounded d's mention the day and hour, my thoughts quicken. That was my shift. My eyes slide to the signature. It's from Louise, who has signed her real name.
Sitting down on the couch, I read the card carefully, and learn that she went from the emergency room to a psychiatric hospital in Pennsylvania, where she spent three weeks "in palatial bedlam." When she returned to town, she met an acquaintance who volunteers for Displaced Homemakers; Louise discovered a genial group of people there, and even took a paying job at the agency. A month later, she's "finally in a good place," by which I know she means several terrains, including her job and her mood. I cross the fingers of both hands and tap the interlocked fingertips together. May this small placard be true; may she find peace. She blesses the soul who "took my life in her hands that night," thanks us all for our good work, is just writing "to let you know what happened-I bet you don't hear very often." We don't.
Excerpted from THE IMPOSSIBLE WILL TAKE A LITTLE WHILE Copyright © 2004 by Paul Rogat Loeb. Excerpted by permission.
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