“How to Not Give Up After Hearing the News” Lay Service – November 4, 2018

“How Not to Give Up After Reading the News.” – John Portz

I’ve always had a keen sense of politics.  In the late-1950s one of my first political memories was wonderment and confusion as to why there was a Cold War with the Soviet Union.  From my 6-year old perspective, it didn’t really make sense.  After all, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had the same political leader.  Dwight Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev were, I thought, the same person – after all, they both had bald heads!  How could we dislike each other so much when we had the same leader?

I look at the world a little differently today, but I still try to find a way to overcome differences and contend with challenging times. But it’s not always easy.  I try to, as our theme title says, “not give up after reading the news.”  How do I do that?  I think we all look within ourselves; we look at our histories and experiences that make up who we are; we look at the world-view that we each develop based upon those experiences.  When I do that, I find two key pieces to my world-view that help me navigate today’s politics.

The first is history.  When I was an undergraduate student I fell in love with history and signed-up my freshman year as a major.  One of my favorite parts of the program was exploring U.S. history in a sequence of courses that each covered about 40 years.  It was fascinating to become immersed in those time periods.  The study of history left me with a very powerful appreciation of the many struggles that make up American history.  Although I spent less time looking at other countries, those places too had their struggles.  American history has not been a simple, straight path.  It has had many twists and turns, some filled with hope and progress, but others with sadness and even despair.  The greatest accomplishments stand in contrast to periods of upheaval, marked most dramatically by a civil war.  Yet, I think the overall trajectory is one of moving forward in hope and optimism for a better day.  The right to vote is an example.  In the earliest days of this country, the qualification to vote typically included being white, a male, over 21 years, owning property, and attending church. We’ve come a long way in expanding voting rights, but challenges remain. 

That change didn’t happen, and many other changes didn’t happen, by standing on the sidelines.  Each of us, in our own way, plays a part to move the process forward. So, when I read or hear about some of the very disturbing political news and events of the day, history gives me solace to know that there have been difficult times in the past, some much worse than we face today, and yet we have moved forward as a country and nation. 

The second piece of my world-view is going to take a somewhat academic turn.  My apologies. I teach at a university, in a Department of Political Science, no less.  It’s who I am.  My approach to research – how I engage in the study of politics – is shaped by what some refer to as an institutional approach.  That is, I give considerable weight to the organizations, practices and other enduring features of our society that structure political, social and economic life.  These institutions matter.  In class I sometimes give the example of comparing the mayor of Cambridge to the mayor of Boston.  In Cambridge, the mayor is chosen from among the city council and has very limited powers; in Boston, the mayor is chosen by the voters of the city and has substantial power. Same title, but very different institutional arrangements. Institutions create constraints and opportunities.  For the mayor of Cambridge, it is primarily constraints; for the Mayor of Boston, there are many more opportunities.  To be sure, not all institutions have a positive or even neutral impact.  On a large scale, slavery was, as one historian labeled it, a “peculiar institution” that certainly had a deeply negative impact on American society.  However, I’m thankful for such institutional designs as federalism, which divides political authority among national and state governments, empowering states and local governments to provide resistance and alternative paths on climate change and other important areas.  Institutions, by their persistence and structure, force important dialogues.  In this regard, I’m very concerned when the media and a free press are vilified as they are today.  An open and free press is a critical institution in the American system.  The information it provides is an important part of the glue that holds our democratic society together.  For the free press to be labeled as the “enemy of the people” is not a policy difference; it is an attack on a critical institution in American society.   

As I look through this lens at the world today, institutions give me some solace that they will serve as a constraint on a politics that has become increasingly divisive and even destructive toward some of the policies that try to move us in a positive direction.  But, as with history, it doesn’t work to stay on the sidelines.  Institutions act through people.  For all of us, we play a part in creating and sustaining institutions that will help us through difficult political times. 

In six minutes or less, those are two key parts of my world-view that help me get through the day.  As I think about the vote on Tuesday and the difficult politics we face, I seek understanding and comfort – not in bald heads – but in the positive path of history and the resilience of institutions.  I hope you also can meet the challenges of our time with a world-view that gives you hope and energy to make a positive difference.     

Beverly Smith –
The first time I spoke with Jean [Gautier] about  our subject, I told her, “I have a three-word answer to the question–‘How not to give up after reading the news?’ Be born Black.” Too much of the news I’ve heard throughout my life has been bad. I’ve had to learn how to survive in a reliably hostile, bad news world. It didn’t take me long to realize that despite its elegance, my initial answer had some problems. One is that being Black is different for everyone. Although racism, particularly stereotyping, can result in similar experiences, our lives and our personalities aren’t identical. People respond in a variety of ways to things that appear to be the same. What I was trying to convey with my answer is that it’s hard to escape bad news if you’re Black in this country and really in much of the rest of the world.
Another problem with what I said is that all the experience I’ve had doesn’t protect me from being affected by the horrible things I encounter. Some things make me absolutely miserable. Last week when I turned on my radio one morning, I heard the last part of a story about a Franciscan brother who was sent to Auschwitz because of his  opposition to the Nazi regime. What followed was particularly terrible and gruesome even for someone who’s familiar with Nazi horror stories. I thought, “Why does this have to be the first thing I hear, seconds after I wake up? I was haunted by it all day.
Working for political and social change is the best way I know to counter the despair that results from knowing what’s happening in the world.
Activism has been the foundation of my life.
I knew before I started school that there was something going on with people who looked like me and my family and other people who didn’t look like us, people who were white. I didn’t know exactly what it was but I knew there was something there and whatever it was I sensed that we were on  the wrong side of it. Part of my awareness came from the fact that my family would talk about race and racism, though not necessarily in those terms. The earliest conversations I remember were about a somewhat mysterious group referred to as “our people”.
As I got older, I knew that something was happening with and for “our people”. I remember feeling excitement and relief because I understood that what was happening held out the hope things might be different and better for us. I was finishing third grade when the Montgomery Bus Boycott began in December 1955. My family including my sister and me were aware of the Civil Rights movement as it unfolded. For the two of us our primary source of information was television. We also listened to what our family and other adults talked about. One of my most vivid memories is of the desegregation of the New Orleans schools because of how he white mothers screamed at the little girls. It was hard for me to believe that they really were mothers because they seemed like the opposite of the mothers I knew.  
The first political action I remember participating in was picketing the headquarters of the Cleveland Public Schools when I was 16. We were protesting because they kept building new schools in places that guaranteed that the schools would continue to be segregated. My sister and I had joined the Cleveland chapter of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, earlier that year and the schools were a major focus of of their work. CORE was founded in 1942 and was best known for the Freedom Rides. I remember going to the CORE office for the first time. I don’t remember the details but I do remember how welcoming and accepting the staff and members were. They never said we were too young to get involved or that we didn’t have much to contribute. They treated us with great respect and kindness. They included us in many of their activities.  A vivid memory I have is  of when they were involved in tenant  organizing in a housing project and they took us along. I remember standing on the sidewalk looking at the building we were about to go into and suddenly realizing that I had no idea what I was doing. I was incredibly lucky that my first experiences of activism took place in what Martin Luther King called “the beloved community.” The support that connecting with other people provides has been essential for sustaining my activism. There’ve been times that I haven’t had this and that’s when I do less or just stop doing anything.
I want to end by telling you about my experience with the demonstration the day after the Inauguration. I knew about it, but I’d been sick all week so I hadn’t made any arrangements to get there. On Saturday I felt well enough to go and decided that I wanted to go. I had to psych myself up, in part, because I hadn’t gone out all week and also it’s much more difficult for me emotionally and physically to do things by myself. I knew there was a group going from the church who planned to meet other people from Watertown and take public transportation, but by the time I’d made up my mind, it was too late for me to join them. I hadn’t told anybody I was thinking about going and no one had asked me whether I was interested in going. I felt I had to be there. Not only because of how I feel about the current president but also because not going seemed like giving up part of my history. I haven’t talked about this today but my most sustained and intense activism has been in the women’s movement including helping to create and sustain Black feminism. It would have felt like a loss if I hadn’t gone. So I took a cab and managed to get myself there. I’m really glad I went. But it didn’t feel great to be there by myself. I have hope that things may be different the next time.


“How to Not Give Up After Reading the News”  by Jean Gauthier


Good Morning, Everyone.  When the Worship Committee first decided on a topic for our lay service today, and it was suggested that I might be one of the members that spoke, I thought to myself, “well, I guess I better start reading the news again.”  I do often enjoy my breakfast while being bombarded by the myriad horrors that touch our local community, our country, and the world, through the miracle of morning TV news.

I do not, however, make a practice of watching the nightly news, or read any daily newspaper. 

So, you might ask, how can I possibly respond to the question at hand?

Well, to begin with, I am fortunate enough to be able to surround myself with caring, insightful people who do read the news. Consequently, I cannot help learning about where we as a world, are heading.

I worked at the Harvard University Center for the Environment for over 16 years, and in that time, I was surrounded by professors, researchers, and students who foresaw and continue to see what is happening to our beautiful, physical world.

Far beyond the physical, I am acutely aware that the injustices of the spirit are even more treacherous.

And, they continue, thanks to people in power who appear to have no heart, or backbone at all.

But enough of the sadness.  My task this morning is to share “How Not to Give Up”. Well, for me, the key word is actually in the title itself.  Give…

Give a smile to someone who seems alone.

Give a dollar to a person that needs it.

Give your time when you have it to spare.

Give your sensitivity to a grieving friend.

Give a skill to an organization that needs you.

Give, give, give in whatever way is possible.

That is how am able not to give up.  It is the only way that I can feel I have power over the madness that we face in this world.

And since I am a singer, and not primarily a speaker, I would like to share a song that I wrote 20 years ago.

It is a song that honors all the heroes in this world who continue to love, to fight, and to never give up.