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Justice on an Empty Tank

So, let me start this post by saying that I unequivocally know for a fact that Black Lives Matter, and all lives can't matter until we give unquestioned dignity to the lives and health of our Black brothers, sisters, and nonbinary siblings. As a white woman, it is my work to uplift the experiences of people different from myself and to utilize the fact that I have a voice, a platform, and somewhat of an influence to direct people to learning, unlearning, and compassion.

However, as a young woman with chronic illness, I do want to take a minute to speak to the intersection of justice and health, no matter what your identity is.

One of my favorite quotes of all time is "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice"- I firmly believe the sentiment and intend on having it on my graduation cap next May (I'm working on my Master's in Public Policy!). However, there's a couple of things to keep in mind as you ponder this quote. First, I'm going to address the work it takes to achieve justice, and then I'm going to speak on my own experience recently as an activist and flaring symptoms of chronic conditions.

First of all, this quote has been lifted by many folks and can be misconstrued as a tool for magical thinking and a cop-out of "oh, if the universe is bent this way, does that mean I don't have to do any work for it to happen?"

Absolutely not. That's why so many brilliant, talented, kind folks are on this site talking about their chronic illness, it's why Black Lives Matter deserves every second of attention and every dollar donation and then some, and it's why people are inclined to helping others in their career, in volunteering, and so many other facets of life. As humans, we are compelled to band together as social creatures are seek out the things that give us a higher purpose- in this case, justice.

Let's also talk about expanding our understanding of Black history. Martin Luther King Jr spent his life fighting for justice, but he came from divinity work (his grandfather and father before him were pastors, as was he) and his often-used quote was lifted from the religious teaching of another Black minister, abolitionist and transcendentalist Theodore Parker:

"I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice" (Parker, 1853).

I initially learned that the more concise King quote was pulled from this longer sermon through writer Mychal Denzel Smith, who wrote this excellent piece on the quote, rhetoric, and intentions as well as several other pieces that I would highly recommend (his writing style alone is breathtaking, and his points are poignant and timely). His point is that when we think about the moral arc and justice, we need to think about it with the intention that our ACTIONS need to reflect the urgency for justice, not in a passive way that states that justice is inevitable and therefore we can simply ride upon the waves of days, months, and years awaiting it.

However, as someone who has wanted to see and has fought for justice for years, I also have to be intentional about how it intersects with my physical and mental health. As I've been doing everything in my power- I went to one protest early on (I've stopped since my area is very tear-gas happy and I could die with complications to my asthma), I've donated, I've supported Black businesses, and I've uplifted and read as much as I can- I just don't feel like I'm ever doing enough. And this feeling of guilt and inadequacy has flared up every single one of my chronic conditions to the point where I can barely do anything. While trying to not center myself or my whiteness, I want to make one message extremely clear:

No one can run on an empty tank.

If you're working and fighting to the point you're making yourself chronically exhausted or ill, that's not helpful in the arc of the moral universe, which as we've discussed is long. I say this with the acknowledgement of the exhaustion and pain that Black folks carry on a daily basis in regards to racism and the violence it entails, but if we as allies want to be helpful, we need to make it a long-term strategy rather than taking so many short-term actions that we burn out. So my advice, and the takeaway I hope you gain from this, is:

  • Don't donate your whole paycheck, but set up small recurring donations

  • Remain educated, but don't act as if education is a means to an end but a lifelong activity similar to a healthy lifestyle or staying up to date in your career's field.

  • If you need to take some time away from social media, do it, but remain in this fight for justice.

  • If you have a chronic condition, like myself, PLEASE take care of your symptoms and flare and bad days. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and as someone training for a half-marathon, I can tell you for a fact that short breaks for long term success are not only okay, but encouraged.

  • In that vein, please don't make this work the burden of your friends and loved ones of color.

  • Finally, PRIDE WAS A RIOT. Stay educated, diversify your history, and KEEP GOING.

It's difficult to balance chronic health concerns and being there for those that also need justice (trust me, us spoonies badly need justice in healthcare, and those fights are VERY intertwined with racial justice) but it's doable and you're doing your best. Sending love from my laptop,

<3 Danielle

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1 Comment

Riya Chaudhry
Riya Chaudhry
Jun 28, 2020

Very well-written, I 100% agree!

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