When John Mayer’s hit single “Waiting On the World to Change” first hit the radio waves, I would refuse to listen to it. My self-assured high school-aged smugness thought that this song was an entitled anthem, exemplifying why the problems in the world were around in the first place: without taking responsibility for the world, without actively trying to change something for the better, how would anything change? Just waiting around for something to happen seemed so passive, squandering our own gifts and plenty of opportunity, that I simply couldn’t get behind this song, and as my mom’s designated DJ, I ensured that I rarely, if ever, was played in the car.
Ah, to be 14 and so sure of the world! What I would give to be so sure nowadays.
After a decade of growing, definitely older and perhaps a little wiser, I find myself gravitating toward that song more and more. Rather than hearing a justification for remaining disengaged with the world, Mayer seems to be appealing to that sense of overall powerlessness that permeates my interactions with the world and all the interconnected systems of oppression and inequality that go with it:
“It’s not that we don’t care,
We just know that the fight ain’t fair
So we keep on waiting
Waiting on the world to change”
How do you do good in this world? How do you do good in this world without doing harm to someone else? How do we deal with such insidious and slippery injustices as systemic racism and sexism? How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand? (I joke, but the humor comes from truth.)
There isn’t an answer, and I’m not confident that there will be one anytime soon. Some traditions, especially around this time of year, help our negotiation of this power struggle. We can hold both contradicting truths within us: 1) that we do have some measure of power and have the capacity to do great things, and 2) that sometimes, a power larger than ourselves may be required to deal with the problems of the world.
I find the Jewish holiday of Purim to exemplify the first truth. As a Christian, I cannot say that I will be perfect in this analysis, but as I understand it, Purim is the celebration of the story of Queen Esther, and how her actions saved the Jewish people from genocide by the Persian king, Ahasuerus. Queen Esther, a practicing Jew, is informed through her cousin Mordecai that the king has issued an edict for all Jews to be killed, on the advice of the king’s advisor, Haman. Esther, along with the Jewish community, fasts and prays for three days, and then goes before the king, asking him to join her for a banquet that evening. He does, and she requests his presence again the following evening. He agrees, and the following night, she dramatically reveals to him that his edict is wrong, and that, as a Jew, she’ll have to die, as well. The king, furious with Haman, has him hung from the gallows that he prepared for executing the Jews, and further proceeds to issue edicts protecting the Jews and attacking the enemies of the Jews.
What makes this story so fascinating in the Jewish tradition is that God is not directly mentioned at all in the Book of Esther. Certainly, there are appeals to religion throughout this story, but at the end of the day, this is a story about a community coming together and taking action against a societal wrong. God didn’t save the Jews this time–Esther and her people did. Forgetting that we have the capacity to stand up against social ills and resist oppression can be dangerous, and, as in the story, may end up leading to potential unprecedented death and destruction.
However, we can’t do it all. We are, in fact, only human, and sometimes, the human will is not enough to fight the forces of evil. This is where I find the Christian story of Holy Saturday to be particularly helpful. Holy Saturday is between the Christian celebrations of Good Friday (when Jesus is crucified), and Easter Sunday (when he is resurrected from death and opens Heaven). Holy Saturday is a period of waiting in anticipation, not quite knowing what is going to happen next. As the stories go, Holy Saturday is the time when Jesus saves the righteous souls of those who have died previously, and works on preparing to open the gates of Heaven to all believers. Meanwhile, his followers on Earth are ultimately stuck in limbo–they are facing death threats themselves, they aren’t quite sure what Jesus’s death means in terms of his spiritual and political movement, and no one knows what is going to happen. The problems that they are facing are too big, plain and simple. There is really nothing to do but sit and wait–wait for the death threats to calm down, wait for grief to subside, wait for clarity to come up with a plan to either continue or abandon the movement, just to wait. That waiting, though, is not a passive action, as I so arrogantly thought–one can only solve a problem if they are able to understand what exactly they are dealing with. Waiting, in this sense, can be the most sensible course of action to take.
Ultimately, there is no one “right” answer in dealing with the crap of the world. Each has benefits and each has drawbacks, and it’s foolish to assume otherwise. However, in this holy, wholly saturated season of religious holidays and depressing news cycles, it is my hope that we all keep both of these extremes in mind.
Image courtesy of phillipandelman.com