Unsettling Times

Sorry for disappearing for awhile. To be honest, after the events at the Capitol on January 6, I got lost trying to make sense of what happened and felt unable to write about homesteading again until I did. This event struck a very personal chord for me because I know that terrain well.

25 Years Ago – Congressman George Brown Jr. and me in front of his window with a view of the Capitol

In college, I interned for Congressman George Brown Jr. in the Cannon building. While there, I passed many hours in the senate and house visitors’ galleys listening to policy being decided. I gave tours to constituents — showing them the subway underground between buildings, demonstrating the parabolic sound phenomena in the rotunda, and pointing out the popular members of the house and senate (or their office doors) as we passed by. As a result, I learned my way by heart around those historic and hallowed halls.

After that, I spent 12 years working in DC. I also did my fair share of protesting over environmental issues on those grounds over the years. So, I’m no stranger to peaceful political dissent on the Capitol lawn.

The landscapes of our lives, and the people we encounter in them, leave an indelible mark. They dwell within us even when we are far away. Though I left the DC area and have been homesteading in North Carolina for 7 years, January 6th reminded me how connected I am to those grand buildings that stand as symbols of our democracy and to the people who work there.

Also, knowing those halls as I do made it impossible not to imagine the terror unfolding inside even before the detailed videos came out. It allowed those images to morph and infiltrate my dreams for weeks after. The extreme violence and video game-like/football hooligan quality to the attack, imposed on my memories, left me feeling very unsettled.

Obviously my visceral experience of these events is nowhere near the real life pain and trauma suffered by the people inside the building at the time. I can’t even begin to understand what they felt in those moments and since then. I send everyone directly or indirectly hurt by these events my deepest condolences, sympathies, and love as you navigate the aftermath of something so life changing.

Yet, whether you witness it first hand, watch the videos, or read about it later, events like this often lead to a sense of vulnerability and set off cycles of worry for the future. It can be difficult to resolve these emotions and find peaceful equilibrium again.

Thankfully, homesteading has taught me to focus on facts not fears and action not paralysis in times of trouble. So, I’ve been doing lots of research to understand how we arrived at this historic point where a group of about 800 people felt emboldened to break the law and breach the Capitol with intent to do violence. I’ve also been thinking about the way forward from here.

Not Our New Normal

I won’t get into the details of the political landscape, the COVID backdrop, and how social media played a role. I think we all understand that these were the driving factors that enabled this level of organization and violent extremism. But what became clear in my research is that this event was a perfect storm of converging negative pressures. It was an anomaly and not our new normal.

Additionally, it’s quickly becoming less likely to be repeatable because so many people are working hard to ensure that it does not happen again. Like 9/11, it was a wake-up call and we are now on guard in ways we hadn’t thought necessary before this event.

I also discovered that the number of hate groups right now is high, but not unprecedented. That number also seems to be declining. Some of the decline may just be that people are moving to online groups instead of in person organizing which makes hate groups harder to track. Overall though, hate group membership isn’t growing rapidly.

Unfortunately, the groups that exist are becoming more organized and motivated to do harm which does make them more dangerous. Sadly, research also shows that the kind of hate that enables violent extremism like at the Capitol is addictive. Once someone’s identity becomes bound up with a hate group, or hate of a particular group, it can be nearly impossible for them to recover from the disease.

I understand addiction. I have known many good people who were consumed by it and hurt others as a result. So, as awful as the attack on the Capitol was, I have come to feel sympathy for the people who find themselves going down that painful path of hate addiction. They need help — not more hate echoed back at them.

Yet, the addictive nature of hate also means we must assume that even people we love can do harm if they begin to travel that dark road. As many of the friends and family members of the people who attacked the capital had to do, we must commit to a see something/say something approach to prevent future violence.

We are the Majority!

One reassuring fact, though, is that the people willing to commit acts of violence are only a very small fringe minority. Yes — they can do heinous harm to individuals or local communities. But they simply don’t have the numbers to start a civil war or derail our democracy at the National level.

People like you and me are the norm. We are the majority. We may have political policy grievances. I know I do. We may even feel justified anger at the injustices prevalent in our country today and seek radical change through peaceful methods.

Yet we respect the rule of law. We also respect the American ideals that all people are equally endowed with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We don’t wish harm on others simply because they think, act, look, or vote differently than we do.

Although I’ve been rattled and unsettled by these events — my research ultimately reaffirmed that love, tolerance, appreciation for cultural diversity, and adherence to our American ideals can absolutely hold the hate at bay.

Resilience

Additionally, I found consolation in a message sent to staffers at the Capitol. The authors began by noting that it’s common after trauma to feel upsetting emotions, thoughts, stress, and changes in behavior. But then they emphasized that “resilience is far-and-away the most common outcome following trauma.”

Resilience is a word I know well in the context of our homestead. We designed our landscape to be resilient in the face of otherwise potentially catastrophic weather events like floods, fires, extreme storms, and droughts. Resilience doesn’t prevent these things from happening, but it makes recovery when they do easier.

Seeing that word in the context of the Capitol attack served as a reminder that we can’t prevent all bad things from happening — though we can often mitigate and prepare for them. But we can hone our ability to get back on track after they do.

We can’t eliminate hate. But we can fortify our communities by building systems of cooperation and understanding. We can have conversations with our loved ones about finding positive ways to promote change that don’t involve violence. We can promote gift economies that encourage gratitude and interdependence.

We can also focus on doing activities that promote love, joy, peace, and beauty in our homes and communities. Our homesteads can be powerful tools for change and community building to make it much more difficult for hate to get a foothold.

We can also restore ourselves on a personal level by finding sanctuary in soil restoration, meaning in the majesty of nature, and hope in the example of a tiny seed that when planted and tended with love can nourish us indefinitely.

This was a sad moment in American history and an important reminder to continue to cultivate and care for our shared environment, for our communities, and for each other. But if we keep heeding Wendell Berry’s wise words, then it need not be a harbinger of our future.

“One must begin in one’s own life the private solutions that can only in turn become public solutions.”

― Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture

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