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do not rage against the dying of the light
on dams and how they break
Dylan Thomas died young: thirty-nine, enshrouded by the noise and chaos of a 1950’s New York City hospital. 2 years prior, he had published the widely renowned poem “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Dying in that hospital bed, his liver destroyed from drink, pneumonia swelling in his brain, did he rage against his own death? Did he do all he could have done to save that which was not savable?
Rage, rage against the dying of light.
I thought of this today, strangely, after looking through Twitter and seeing another round of abuses from the mobs online. This time the scapegoat was a middle-aged high school teacher, yelling at a teenage student who refused to wear a mask because he was vaccinated, as per the new CDC recommendations – two weeks before the school year ends. The comments made a mockery of her weight, laughing about how she would die from diabetes or obesity. People said she should never be allowed to teach again. People said she was “anti-science” for being afraid of transmission from someone vaccinated (which is possible). Some said she was scum. Some people said they wished she would die. Some people said they would kill her themselves if they could.
Can you imagine how it would feel to have your worst day broadcasted around the world, and for thousands of strangers to judge you so harshly based on that? For people to wish that you would die for being afraid of getting sick.
The video had been retweeted thousands of times before I saw it. I helplessly tweeted in her defense – people responded with laughing emojis. Where others’ saw an irredeemable monster, I saw someone who was scared, exhausted, and at the end of her rope. I saw someone who needed help, not exposure. I saw someone who has had an incredibly difficult year with teaching during the pandemic, and this boy refusing to wear a mask in her classroom was the final crack in the dam of her self-control. Perhaps he had been cruel to her in class before – as viewers, it’s impossible for us to know. All we get is this short clip of, perhaps, the lowest moment of her life. All of her fear and anxiety poured out, and the desperate people online were granted another scapegoat.
What we don’t want to face is that this woman is all of us. This woman mirrors to us the anxieties and fears we all have about ourselves. She shows us that underneath all of our bravado and external self-esteem, we are really just scared, reactive animals, afraid that we are going to die. That we all have the potential to boil over. That all of our dams have cracks in them.
If we can’t face our own shadows, where else to put our sins but on another.
While those 26 seconds of her worst day drifts through the internet ether, with people decrying her behavior toward this student as “abuse,” the death threats, taunting, and mockery of her body, her ability to do her job, or her right to be alive will be a symbol of the tweeter’s virtue. Aren’t they so much better than her, they must think, as they cast their droplet of hatred into the already overflowing basin, and then scroll onto the next thing. Tomorrow, a new scapegoat will have the people’s sins cast upon it, and this teacher – this whole, complex human being – will still be out wandering the desert, alone and reeling from the true abuse of the internet mob.
Though she’ll likely never see this, I see her. I see her out there, tired and afraid. I see her, because I am tired and afraid, too.
And I see the mob, too. This isn’t who they are, either. Their comments, while painful to see, don’t encompass the entirety of their being either. It is but a glimpse into the cruelty that we all have the potential to send out into the world. This is a just projection – an unconscious expression of such deep pain with no outlet. These are good people, the kinds of people who hold their grandmother’s hand while she talks, so they can truly listen. They are the kinds of people who volunteer and donate money to charity, and gently put spiders outside. The kinds of people who want the best for their children, so they work hard, and they do what they can to provide for them. These are the kinds of people who slow down for raccoons crossing the road, and pause to watch the sunset, and care whether their coffee is “fair trade” or not.
Still, my cries for kindness are ridiculed relentlessly on social media. Every time I try to explain that this vitriol and hatred we feel toward one another is an illusion constructed by our ambient cultural mythologies, people laugh at me and it somehow always devolves into me either being a liberal or a republican, so my perspective is deemed verifiably poisonous no matter who I’m talking to.
My partner always asks why I keep engaging, and it wasn’t until today, through exasperated and seemingly endless tears, that I realized why I do:
I am in utter denial of how the world is, and where it is going. Like a baby rodent that hasn’t yet opened her eyes to see reality for what it is, I cannot accept that we live in a world where people treat each other the way they do. I cannot accept that right now, all over the world, people are dying and suffering in unimaginable ways, and that this is supposed to be normal. That this is just “how it is.” I cannot accept that no matter what I say or do, this pattern of human behavior is entirely outside of my control.
I can accept that I, too, have participated in online cruelty. I have accepted my ability to lash out and vilify others to make myself feel better, but that’s not the world I am trying create. And I cannot accept that others don’t see that there is another way.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And so I rage. I rage because I can’t accept it. I rage because I am bargaining – desperately trying to convince people that there is a better way, a decent way. If only we could slow down (for even half a heartbeat), be kinder, be gentler, be willing to be uncomfortable, be willing to face our shadows. If only, if only, if only. If only it were ever that easy.
I rage because as much as I abhor what has become of human society, I’m scared to watch it die. And it is dying before our very eyes.
Though this world, more specifically, this global civilization, is a completely novel anomaly in the universe, it’s the only thing that is familiar to me. I don’t know how the world looks without these structures in place – despite the utter suffering and inhumanity that created and now still maintains it. So when I see things like this on Twitter, I see it as a representation of the cracks in our collective dam, our global civilization – the machinery and concrete that is holding this incredibly tempestuous ocean of chaos and calamity behind it. Every drop of hate and unmediated vitriol permeates through the dam: a tremor, a quake, a weakening of the entire system.
These events are microcosms of where we are at collectively. We are all at war with one another as we have distilled ourselves down into simplified soundbites. We are brimming with identities and brutal defenses of those identities, rather than accepting that we are all complex, and largely confounding beings. We say, I am not like her, because I am XYZ. I am an established member of this community or this identity group – a living, breathing example of whatever stereotype I have chosen for myself. I am the exception and the rule. I am this, so I am above reproach. I am above being wrong.
This concrescence of identity distillation and unchecked ego perfectly coincides with the ecocide and colonization that has (and is) ravaging the planet. As we dig deeper into our superiorities and deny our complexities, we dig deeper into this way of life. How many ecosystems are destroyed to maintain a server the size of Twitter so we can tell each other to kill themselves and occasionally giggle at a cat video? We created a monster that costs our very souls to maintain, and this is just one of the monsters. We dump oceans in this massive basin, all while patching up the dam in unironic futility.
We will continue burning the world to the ground because we can’t look up from our technologies to really see ourselves for who we are. We’re afraid to be the gentle, humble, curious creatures that we are because we’ve been told a myth about ourselves. We’ve been told that we are destroyers rather than artists. That we are selfish rather than generous. We’ve been told that in all of our badness, we have been chosen to rule this world – that our dominion is absolute. We’ve been told a convincing lie about ourselves, and who can blame us for believing it? We watch the bombs fall on hospitals and we say, “Ah yes. This is humanity. This is what humans do.”
And humans do terrible things – but do you? Would you? Is our natural state truly evil – are we really marked with original sin? Or is that just a story we tell ourselves to make sense of all that has been done. We’ve been told, “It’s only human nature.” “It’s for the greater good.”
So we’ll call our cruelty “activism” or “education.” We’ll tell ourselves that we have done the work, that we have seen our shadows, but we haven’t. I haven’t. I’ll spend my life peering around the corners and be surprised to find more darkness, again and again and again, and so will everyone else. But that’s too much to think of right now, keep scrolling. Just keep scrolling. Find someone to cast our sins upon so we don’t have to face the fact that we’re so fucking afraid. I am so fucking afraid.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
The incredible irony of my fear is that I truly hate dams. I especially hate this dam. I want the dam to break, for civilization to die. What I truly fear is the devastation of the flood – the totalizing death before the rebirth which is entirely unknown.
Dylan Thomas wrote this poem about death, and how it matters not how wise we are about our imminent conclusions – we rage. We see what is coming, and we can’t help but to deny it. We do not go gentle into that good night.
“Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.”
In the face of death, what we have done will never be enough. My pleas for peace will never be enough, because peace will not be had until the waters have long since flooded the soil, and the ruins of this dam are overgrown with ivy. How can there be peace in a system built upon total domination and oppression, in all its flurry of varieties?
Perhaps, though, I can find peace of my own as the dam rumbles its warning song. What can I do other than seek out dogs to smile at? To try to pet the snake in the garden. To touch the bark of a tree and say, I see you, too. To touch the flesh of these others that are so different than me, so exquisite in their creation. There is an ineffable, intelligent mystery to a snake, why does no one talk about this? And there I go again – raging at the dying of the light.
So I will watch the robin outside the window, and I will cry. I will greet the sorrow as a gift. I will mourn the world, because someone has to. I will reach out my hand to the scapegoats and ask them if they are alright. I will plant trees whose shade I’ll never sit under. I’ll raise chickens and give their eggs away for nothing in return. I’ll teach my dogs tricks just to make people laugh. I’ll keep crying about how beautiful the sky is. I’ll keep writing poetry that no one will ever read. I’ll continue to see the goodness in people when they don’t see it themselves. I’ll go into the forest and listen to all that it has to say to me and have peace knowing it will never be enough because it was never up to me alone.
I won’t attempt to scoop out teaspoons of water from this frothy, bubbling ocean. I am no soldier, and this war was over long before I noticed it was happening. I will rage no more. Instead, I’ll work to build channels to soften the flood. I’ll work to build levees around those just looking up from their screens, because they didn’t choose this collapse either. I’ll humbly attempt to regenerate what I can, in myself, in others, in the land. I’ll work, and I’ll wait, ever listening for that final crack. And I will be ready, then, to offer peace.