I expected the world to look different when I woke up last Wednesday. I don’t know exactly what I expected it to look like; perhaps I thought I would see catchy quotes lighting up the sky in bold pink font, proclaiming that the future is female and therefore that I am the future. Maybe I expected the sun to shine a little differently, to reflect on the crimson maple trees around campus so the leaves would glow like a thousand little stars and light my path as I walked down State Street to my economics lecture.
For the past two years, I had been told Tuesday would be my chance to change the world. Instagram had been flooded with glossy images of feminism and intersectionality that promised a better life for us all if we would simply vote. We were told that if we voted on Tuesday, we would have a chance to paint America sparkly pink and wrap it up with a bow. We were told our fate was in our hands if we would just show up to the polls. So we showed up. We voted in record numbers.
It was a groundbreaking election. We, as voters, decided Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will be the youngest woman ever to serve in Congress, Ilhan Omar will be the first Somali-American in Congress, Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland will be the first Native American women in Congress, and Letitia James will be the first African American woman to serve as New York’s attorney general, among several other decisions. We decided it’s finally time for over 100 women to serve in Congress. For a split second, I let myself get caught up in the hope and hype. I thought maybe when I woke up, things would look and feel at least a little different.
Then, Wednesday night, more than a dozen people were brutally murdered on American soil simply for spending time at a country music bar.
After 20 years of living in this country, I should have known better. I should have known the country has never been glossy and pink and hope always appears to be in vain.
One of my good friends grew up near Thousand Oaks, Calif., which was the location of the shooting. I didn’t talk to her much about it, but I know she spent most of Thursday in mourning. Real people in Thousand Oaks — people with families and dreams to change the world — simply went out to enjoy their evening at a bar, and now they’re dead. Gone. Executed for committing the unforgivable crime of existing on American soil.
On Friday, the same friend sent me a video of her neighbor’s house in California, engulfed in a blanket of sinister flames that danced with gleeful knowledge of the destruction they were causing. Historic wildfires have taken over the region, and have now killed more than 30 people. Thousands of families have lost their homes, and dozens have lost someone they love.
How are we possibly supposed to find hope when there seems to be nothing but death from sea to shining sea?
Personally I know two activities when I have hope: When I’m loving kids and when I’m telling stories.
It’s fairly simple, actually. I volunteer for two really great organizations: one for which I spend time with 10th graders in Detroit and one for which I hang out with middle school students in my hometown. To me, nothing beats being with these kids, hearing about their classes and career goals and their crushes. And telling stories – well, you can already see God gave me a love for words, and when I sit down and put them on paper, it just feels right, like all my confusing thoughts finally have a purpose.
There’s nothing profound about either of those things, and they won’t put an end to mass tragedy, but they give me a small opportunity to make the world a little bit better, and when faced with that opportunity, I’m going to take it.
As heartbroken as I am by the current state of our country, I am a proud American and I consider it my honor to perform my civic duties. I’m an informed voter and I’ve participated in multiple protests when voting didn’t seem to be enough. I actively reach out to my elected officials. If you’re an American and you don’t do those things, it’s high time to ask yourself why not. Nothing is going to change if we don’t demand change.
But I have another civic duty, one that wasn’t listed in my Advanced Placement Government textbook: to sit in a middle school cafeteria and listen to 12-year-old girls complain about their gym classes. Every one of us has more civic duties. Some of us are called to improve the country by helping advance our computer systems, or to do research on cells, or to bring beauty to people’s lives through art.
I beg of each and every one of you: Do what you were put on this planet to do. That’s your civic duty. You can’t singlehandedly prevent tragedy from ever occurring again, but there are plenty of things you can do to make this broken, hurting country a little bit more joyful.
This isn’t a call to complacency, telling you to follow your dreams instead of fighting for change. Far from it, in fact. Please do everything you can to enact change in this world because we so desperately need it in more ways than I can begin to list in this column.
My call, instead, is for you to remember though we may never see bold pink words engraved in the skies, though perhaps we will always find ourselves in a country of mass tragedy and heartbreak, we can never be stripped of our hope. There is always something we can do to make today a little bit better. And in two years’ time, when our fate is once more in our own hands, I hope we believe it, and show up to the polls again, and, despite everything, I hope we continue to vote in record numbers.
Hannah Harshe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.