A year or two ago, I studied under a professor who somehow know just which buttons to push to transform my serene, scholarly public self into a senseless wreck. Admittedly, that public persona was a very thin layer at the time, but more than anyone else, his words were the venom to set my skin to itching. I, clinging with whitened knuckles to hope in the face of the terrors and banal horrors happening to Syria and my beloveds there, simply couldn’t swallow his telling me in class, “It’s over for Aleppo. There’s no hope for it.”
I went home and eventually coaxed my heart rate down, silently talking down the warrior instincts and the wailing mourner I didn’t even know I had inside. I typed a stilted, emotionless email reminding him of my connections to poor Abraham-milked Aleppo (now milked for all she’s worth), asking that perhaps he consider not making such comments in my presence during a difficult time in my life. He, unrepentant, replied shortly after that he was a devoted teller of the truth and that just because there is no hope doesn’t mean you can’t have any.
That koan aside, I am sorry to say that today, such a comment would provoke much less savage, raging mourning in me. Coming up on the forth anniversary of the protest movement in Syria (selmia, selmia: peaceful, peaceful, is what they chanted in the streets), if someone told me there was no hope for Aleppo, I might bring up the long-term, talk about how other cities and countries and peoples have recovered from devastation, decimation and defamation over years and years. I think I could feel myself slowly losing the imagination to declare that things will be okay anytime in the near future. Or maybe even in my lifetime. I would feel tired, and then ashamed of myself for that fatigue.
And this is where I catch myself and wonder what, besides the space of two years, stands between me and the raging weeping student I was in that professor’s classroom. I catch myself on that word, the crux of our conflict: “hope.” I tell myself arguments about being realistic, about warnings against heads in clouds, about just how far it is to fall if you go for the moon. I use multi-syllabic words I learned from other professors and from the talking heads-and-shoulders on the news channels, but then I catch myself again and listen to other voices that are using that word “rage.” I listen to the voice of the young woman of color at my college‘s discussion on the events in Ferguson and around the country as she says that she just has so much rage and doesn’t know what to do with it; I listen to the voices of the panelists as they respond and show her avenues down which to send it, but remind her that it burns brightest and best when yoked with love. I see a blink of a Facebook post go by, someone quoting Dylan Thomas, in his poem about burning and blazing and forking lightning:
“And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
And I think that perhaps the common thread here is that rage really is a flame, and can only keep going when the fresh air of hope is nearby. While we can hope, we can rage, we can walk, we can speak; but denied that air, it flickers and dies, we have no fuel for muscles or voice. And only then are the curtains drawn, leaving just darkness and silence, apathy and something that might be despair if we could work up the energy to taste it and find out.
A former classmate of mine at Harvard Divinity School gave a sermon in the Billings Preaching Competition, quoting scripture: “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27). He spoke about anger at injustice, at institutional excess, at the glorification of material success rather than spiritual or social striving. I clapped along; he tied for first prize. I’m not sure I really got it until now, though.
Be angry but do not sin, because anger means you think things could be, should be different. Be angry but do not sin, because anger means you are alive and breathing air and have not grown too weary. Be angry but do not make room for the devil, because instead you are too full of vision. Be angry but do not make room for the devil, even if you can’t find that vision yet, because sometimes “this isn’t the way it should be” is enough to fill up that space for a little while until you find one.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.