Turning points in history


So starts one of Black’s Laws, droll bits of wisdom from my beloved mentor Dr. Jan Black. There are a lot of different ways to finish this sentence, but most of them point to the same idea:

The have-nots don’t rise up against the haves very often, unless they are so desperate for change that they’re willing to try anything, including the most desperate of measures.  

I’ve been thinking about Dr. Black’s words a lot lately in light of the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. He was the candidate of change, promising have-nots that he understood their pain and would rescue them from it.

We human beings instinctively avoid pain and seek pleasure. But at a certain point, when pain has become intolerable, we’ll do anything – anything, even trading one kind of pain for another – to make this pain stop.

To many of us, Trump’s election looks like the proverbial jump from the frying pan into the fire. It’s a different kind of heat, even if it hastens one’s end. Hey: it’s something. If you’re looking for a quick way out of pain, the fire is a faster way to go than the frypan.

Listening to Trump supporters trying to explain why they chose the candidate they did, I hear sentiments like, “this country is on the wrong track and this was our last chance to save our way of life,” and “the alternative was worse!” that reflect the kind of fear and discomfort that motivates human beings to take drastic action.

Fear is not rational. Decisions motivated by fear come from the most primitive part of the human brain, which is not capable of rational thought. Donald Trump appealed to and stoked people’s fears, then encouraged his followers to act on their most primitive impulses. He offered some handy scapegoats onto which they could channel their rage: Mexicans, Muslims, women, the disabled, liberals, the Clintons, the Obamas, the Republican Party, the judiciary, Rosie O’Donnell, NATO, NAFTA, globalization, China, the media… take your pick. Pile on with your own prejudices. This is not an exhaustive list.

We don’t lash out at one another like this, generally, unless we feel threatened. Why would we? Of the four basic actions the primitive brain understands – fight, flight, feast or fornicate* – fight is the most costly and difficult. The stakes are too high. Our own lives are on the line, and could just as easily be lost in a fight as saved.

Of course, many genuinely believed, or wanted to believe, that Trump could save them from the frying pan of fears both real and imagined. The have-nots – those who felt threatened, left behind, and anxious/angry about losing the power and the security they once had – rose up and lashed out against the haves in a desperate attempt to take back control in a world that had become too uncomfortable for them to tolerate.

Bye-bye, frying pan.  Here comes the fire.

* You can substitute a one-syllable synonym here if you like, but my kids may read this someday so I’m keeping it family-friendly.


“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

— Margaret Mead

The history of the world is full of turning points.  Often the fate of an entire country rests upon the shoulders of one individual, on his or her choice to be a beacon of hope, an agent of change, a fighter for peace…or something quite the opposite.

Liberia in the year 2000 was one of the most brutal places on earth. In the grip of a warlord who seized power in a bloody coup, Liberians endured a six-year civil war in which human rights abuses were widespread.  Government forces and rebel groups roamed the country and terrorized the population. It seemed no one could stop the madness.

Yet in 2005, Liberia held peaceful democratic elections and chose Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as its President, becoming the first African nation to elect a female head of state. Women took an active role in peace building and recovery.

How did such a dramatic change happen in such a short time? After decades of war, how was peace finally achieved in Liberia?

The answer begins with women who were tired of the brutality and said, “Enough is enough.”

“In 2003, fed up with the war, fed up with boy soldiers putting their hands in our underclothes searching for what they said was guns, and pistols, and reconnaissance notes… fed up with  our daughters being taken away from us to warm the beds of some drug-emboldened fighter… fed up with our sons being recruited as soldiers… fed up, just fed up…a group of community women got together and decided ‘Enough is enough.’ For us, the price of sitting was becoming higher than the price of getting involved.”

— Leymah Gbowee, co-founder of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace

On April 1, 2003, Leymah Gbowee was laid up in bed with malaria. A friend called with an urgent message. The war was closing in, she said. Something had to be done.

“I had this dream,” said Gbowee, “this crazy dream. Like someone was actually telling me to get the women of the church together and pray for peace.”

Thousands of women came together to protest. For the first time in the history of Liberia, Muslim women and Christian women joined forces to pray, sing, dance and protest for peace. They put pressure on their pastors and imams to speak out against the war. They framed their goals in simple terms: peace, not politics.

The rallies grew larger. Women in white lined the streets and filled public spaces, carrying big banners that read: THE WOMEN OF LIBERIA WANT PEACE NOW.

“We went back to the Bible. We saw what Esther did for her people, that she went in sackclothes and ashes, saying, ‘I mean it.’ We wore the white, saying to people we were out for peace.”

In plain white clothes, no makeup, no jewelry, and their hair tied back, the women of Liberia held prayer vigils, organized rallies, and gathered in protest, singing songs and holding signs demanding an end to the violence.

“We stepped out first and did the unimaginable,” said Gbowee: “to send out a signal to the world that we, the Liberian women, we are tired of the killing of our people.”

News of the protests drew national and international attention. Eventually — some would say miracoulsly — the warring factions agreed to peace talks.

To ensure the negotiators and leaders would be held to their commitments, the women staged a sit-in outside the Presidential Palace where the talks were taking place. They blocked all exits, locking arms around the building so that no one could leave until a peaceful resolution to the conflict was reached.

When the talks stalled, the women went further, threatening to publicly undress if the men did not agree to a cease fire.

These were women who had witnessed and experienced countless acts of sexual violence.  Why would they stand naked in front of the perpetrators, the men responsible for these war crimes, who had ordered and personally carried out so many horrific acts that they’d lost count? In their quest for power, these warlords and militia fighters had left remorse and guilt behind long ago.  Nothing and no one could shame them.

Or could they?

“One way or another, you have a power as a woman.”
— Vaiba Flomo, Liberian Peace Activist

In some parts of Africa, there is a curse associated with seeing your mother or grandmother naked. It is considered the ultimate shaming act, not for the woman, but for you, the viewer.  It is a cultural taboo with the power to shock even the most battle-hardened soldier.

The security guards outside the Presidential Palace confronted the demonstrators. In her book Mighty Be Our Powers, Leymah Gbowee recounts the scene:

“‘Who is the leader of this group?’ one called out. ‘Here am I,’ I said, rising to my feet.

‘You are obstructing justice and we are going to have to arrest you.’

Obstructing justice? Had he really said that to me? Justice? I was so angry, I was out of my mind. ‘I will make it very easy for you to arrest me. I’m going to strip naked.’

I took off my hair tie. Beside me, Sugar rose to her feet and began to do the same. I pulled off my lappa, exposing the tights I wore underneath… I didn’t have a plan when I started taking off my clothes. My thoughts were a jumble — Okay, if you think you’ll humiliate me with an arrest, watch me humiliate myself more than you could have dreamed.

I was beside myself, desperate. Every institution that I’d been taught was there to protect the people had proved evil and corrupt; everything I valued had collapsed. These negotiations had been my last hope, but they were crashing, too.

But by threatening to strip, I had summoned up a traditional power. In Africa, it’s a terrible curse to see a married or elderly woman deliberately bare herself. For this group of men to see a woman naked would be almost like a death sentence. Men are born through women’s vaginas, and it’s as if by exposing ourselves, we say, ‘We now take back the life we gave you.’”

The men went back inside the building. Gbowee turned to the media assembled outside, vowing that the women would not give up. Thousands more would join them to pray, sing, dance, protest, and if necessary, strip naked. “We can do it again if we want to,” she warned.

Two weeks later, negotiators reached an accord. Liberia’s dictator was exiled to Nigeria. A transitional government was put in place until democratic elections could be held.

The women returned home victorious, but they knew the most difficult work was ahead: healing their country from the trauma of war would take many years.

There’s a parallel here with the residents of London during World War II who survived the bombing of their city. Rather than being frightened into submission, the British people decided to carry on and keep calm in defiance of those who wanted to terrorize them.

The women of Liberia had seen the worst of their country’s civil war. But instead of subduing and silencing them as their attackers had intended, it emboldened them to act. They were tired of watching helplessly as their families and friends were beaten, tortured, kidnapped, and killed. They were tired of being afraid.

They had seen things they could not un-see. They could tolerate no more. The violence had to be stopped.

It’s these personal breaking points, I think, that so often lead to the turning points that transform communities, causes, and countries. One individual can step forward, galvanizing others to act.

In these moments people cross the threshold to a place beyond fear, and step into a new world of possibilities. No longer trapped by their circumstances, having transcended their fears, they are free to act in ways that previously seemed unimaginable. It is here they find the courage to give their lives in service of a cause greater than themselves.

“We were not afraid. My mother was like, ‘They will beat you people, and they will kill you.’ And we said, well, if I should get killed,  just remember me, that I was fighting for peace.”
— Vaiba Flomo, Liberian peace activist


“Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense.”

— Winston Churchill

The quote above comes from a speech that Churchill, then Prime Minister of Great Britain, gave before students at the Harrow School  in 1941.  Churchill is often misquoted as saying, “Never give up,” but this is simply a matter of semantics. The underlying message is the same, and unmistakable.  To quote a slightly less famous but more cherished mentor of mine, Dr. Moyara Ruehsen: “When you’re going through hell, just keep going.”

In our darkest moments, when it seems the odds are stacked against us and each day is a struggle,  we may feel like Churchill did in the midst of the catastrophic events that rocked his country in World War II: “quite alone, desperately alone.” He cautioned the students against placing their hopes in a quick fix or swift victory. Persistence, he told them, was the path by which Great Britain would secure its future.

“But we must learn to be equally good at what is short and sharp and what is long and tough. It is generally said that the British are often better at the last. They do not expect to move from crisis to crisis; they do not always expect that each day will bring up some noble chance of war; but when they very slowly make up their minds that the thing has to be done and the job put through and finished, then, even if it takes months—if it takes years—they do it.”

This is not particularly uplifting advice. We like our stories to have dramatic turnabouts and happy endings with all the loose ends neatly tied up. And indeed, many turning point stories do have moments like that, when “everything changed.” But as anyone who has been through any life challenge will tell you, there are many unglamorous moments, many days of slogging through or just surviving, and weeks, months, and even years of hard work that go into turning one’s ship in a new direction. And it takes tremendous patience and persistence to stay the course.

To those in grim circumstances, facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Churchill’s speech contains an interesting observation and bit of advice that may be even more motivational than his famous “Never give in” line. I’ll close with this, because I think it points the way out of despair, toward the horizon of possibility.

“You cannot tell from appearances how things will go. Sometimes imagination makes things out far worse than they are; yet without imagination not much can be done.”


News bulletin from the continuing drought in the west: it was too hot to water the plants today.

I don’t mean it was too hot for me as a human being to be outside watering today – although that is true as well. It was over 100 degrees today.

The water itself was too hot to put on the plants, so hot it almost burned me coming out of the spigot. Luckily I had put on garden gloves; the nozzle of the hose was too hot to pick up with bare hands.

Hot water is bad for plants. It shocks the roots. Plants need a certain amount of water, within a certain temperate range, to survive.  Humans reach for a cold glass of water on a hot day, not a cup of boiling hot tea.* Likewise, a plant’s roots reach out to take in cool water from underground.

The water coming out of the hose was more like the temperature one would use to cook vegetables.

At first I thought, well, this is normal. This water has been sitting in the hose, which has been baking out in the sun. Of course it’s warm. Let it run. I waited for the hot water to run its course so the cold water from underground could flow.

But it didn’t. The hot water just kept coming.

It got me thinking. What if it was always like this? What if this was ‘the new normal’?  If climate change proceeds as predicted, is this what I can expect? Hotter temperatures, extended drought, plants dying… at what point will this land I love no longer be able to support life as I know it?

“Why didn’t they do something?” future generations will ask. “They stood idly by as their water supply dwindled? They watched their plants perish, knowing that they were sure to follow… but they still denied there was a problem, and refused to act in the interest of their long-term survival?” In retrospect, it will seem so obvious: they should have conserved more of their resources, enough to sustain themselvesThey consumed too much, too fast, and so entire peoples were wiped out. Just like that. They’ll shake their heads, feel sorry for us, perhaps. Shudder and lament a way of life gone extinct.

Sometimes I am baffled by people who remain steadfast in their denial of climate change. How can they not see what is happening?  Answer: people don’t see problems that they don’t want to see. The brain is wise enough to protect us from things we cannot handle, and particularly from those that could threaten our survival.

Acknowledging climate change can feel threatening. Our way of life is threatened by climate change. We may not survive it, individually or collectively.  If we do, we will have to live differently.  We will not be able to sustain ourselves as we did before.  It doesn’t take much extrapolation to imagine what surviving in a changed climate might require. “Civil unrest” is far too polite a phrase to describe the acts that desperate people without food or water might be driven to commit. Scarcity and fear bring out our most brutal human instincts.

This can be a terrifying thought, one we’d rather not think about.

However, not thinking about it doesn’t make the problem go away. What if we responded by opening up our minds to the possibilities, and envisioned the future life we might build for ourselves? What might we do differently?

How might climate change be a turning point for us, individually and collectively? How do we want to respond?

We can turn away from the threat of climate change by pretending it doesn’t exist. We can stay stuck in that first stage of grief, after shock: denial. Or we can face it with our heads up and our eyes open. We can respond in productive ways. We can come up with creative solutions. We can adapt. We can survive and perhaps even thrive. But only if we are honest about what’s happening in our world. Only then can we go confidently into the future.

*British folk excepted. I know y’all love your tea.

those moments in life that change everything

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