In our pursuit of a world powered by love and reaching toward joy and justice, imagination is our most formidable and unyielding ally—the people’s common asset, an endowment to each one and the indispensable weapon of the powerless. Yes, they control the massive military-industrial complex, the sophisticated surveillance systems, the prison cells, and the organized propaganda—and these are on constant display as if to remind us every minute that there is no hope of a world without the instruments of death and oppression—and we have only our minds, our desires, and our dreams—and each other. And, yes, in a fixed war or a traditional conflict we are finished before we start. But it’s also true that there’s no power on earth stronger than the imagination unleashed and the collective human soul on fire. In irregular combat or a guerrilla struggle that pits our free imaginations against the stillborn and stunted imaginations of the war-makers and the mercenaries, we will win.
When we choose life, we leap into the whirlwind with courage and hope. Hope is a choice, after all, and confidence a politics—our collective antidote to cynicism and despair. It’s the capacity to notice or invent alternatives, and then to do something about it, to get busy in projects of repair. I have a T-shirt that reads: “Depressed? Maybe it’s political.”
The future is entirely unknown and unknowable; optimism, then, is simply idle dreaming, while pessimism is no more than a dreary turn of mind—they are twins, two sides of the same deterministic coin. Both optimists and pessimists delude themselves into thinking they know for sure what’s coming. They don’t; no one does. The day before Rosa Parks sat down on that bus, Jim Crow was immutable; the day after, the Third American Revolution was unstoppable. The day before John Brown’s assault on Harpers Ferry, the end of slavery was impossible; the day after, abolition was inevitable. The day before the Zapatistas declared a state of war against Mexico from its small base in Chiapas, the idea of a peasant and indigenous-led civil resistance was unthinkable; now it is a model for actions across the globe. And had I been asked my advice on the day before Occupy Wall Street set up those tents, I’d have said it won’t be effective; on the day after I dived in headfirst…
Choosing hopefulness is holding out the possibility of change. It’s living with one foot in the mud and muck of the world as it is, while another foot strides forward toward a world that could be. Hope is never a matter of sitting down and waiting patiently; hope is nourished in action, and it assumes that we are—each and all of us—incomplete as human beings. We have things to do, mountains to climb, problems to solve, injuries to heal. We can choose to see life as infused with the capacity to cherish happiness, to respect evidence and argument and reason, to uphold integrity, and to imagine a world more loving, more peaceful, more joyous and more just than the one we were given—and we should. Of course we live in dark times, and some of us inhabit even darker places, and, yes, we act mostly in the dark. But we are never freer as teachers and students, citizens, residents, activists and organizers, and artists and thinkers than when we shake ourselves free and refuse to see the situation or the world before us as the absolute end of the matter…
Turn out all the lights and ignite a small candle in any corner of the room. That little light held aloft anywhere challenges the darkness everywhere. One candle. We can always do something, and something is where we begin. The tools are everywhere—humor and art, protest and spectacle, the quiet, patient intervention and the angry and urgent thrust—and the rhythm of and recipe for activism is always the same: we open our eyes and look unblinkingly at the immense and dynamic world we find before us; we allow ourselves to be astonished by the beauty and horrified at the suffering all around us; we organize ourselves, link hands with others, dive in, speak up, and act out; we doubt that our efforts have made the important difference we’d hoped for, and so we rethink, recalibrate, look again, and dive in once more.
Pay attention; be astonished; act; doubt. Repeat, and repeat.
Read Praxis Center Editor Alice Kim’s interview with Bill Ayers about his new book here.
William Ayers, Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago (retired), member of the executive committee of the Faculty Senate and founder of both the Small Schools Workshop and the Center for Youth and Society, taught courses in interpretive and qualitative research, oral history, creative non-fiction, urban school change, and teaching and the modern predicament. A graduate of the University of Michigan, the Bank Street College of Education, Bennington College, and Teachers College, Columbia University, Ayers has written extensively about social justice, democracy and education, the cultural contexts of schooling, and teaching as an essentially intellectual, ethical, and political enterprise. He is a past vice-president of the curriculum studies division of the American Educational Research Association.
Ayers’ articles have appeared in many journals including the Harvard Educational Review, the Journal of Teacher Education, Teachers College Record, Rethinking Schools, The Nation, Educational Leadership, the New York Times and the Cambridge Journal of Education. To see a list books Ayers has published and edited, visit his website.
He lives in Hyde Park, Chicago with Bernardine Dohrn, partner, comrade, friend, co-parent and grand-parent, inspiration, co-author, lover, and soul-mate for close to half a century.