For the past couple of years, in the United States and across the globe, many of us have witnessed and even experienced firsthand an international rise in nationalism and racial and ethnic discrimination. The exploitation of fear, bigotry, and uncertainty about the future—and of what seemingly divides us—has frequently marred global politics and negatively impacted our individual and collective wellbeing.
Like many of you, I have seen these traumatic effects—especially in my patients’ lives and throughout my work in the areas of human rights and animal protection. Infringements on liberty and opportunity (and similar injustices) can leave visible and invisible scars on individuals, communities, nations, and society at large.
So it may be surprising that right now I’m more optimistic than I have been in years.
Survivors of violence fuel much of my optimism. After living through the unimaginable, they show how we can defeat violence and its manifestations. The mere definition of survival implies a willingness to continue, even after incredible adversity.
Looking around, I can see a whole cadre of survivors pushing forward, refusing to stand down or be defeated. Take, for example, the international crusade of women and girls who have expanded the #MeToo movement and demanded changes in the workplace and beyond. Asylum seekers and American Dreamers have risked their freedom to give others a chance. Likewise, members of the Movement for Black Lives continue to respond to sustained and increasingly visible violence against Black communities in the US and abroad. And in high schools across the country, young people are rising up and leading the charge to keep guns away from schools, off the streets, and out of the hands of violent perpetrators.
Finally, others are joining these survivors. Men are joining women in the fight against sexual violence and the battle for equal pay. Citizens are marching with undocumented immigrants and refugees. White mayors like Mitch Landrieu are decisively removing Confederate monuments originally erected to forward the agenda of white supremacists. Some gun owners are even standing with young gun control advocates. And we should not forget the humans who continue to stand up for nonhumans.
Here’s where most of my optimism comes from: These survivors and their supporters appear to be in it for the long haul. Despite the too often meaningless distractions that appear across traditional and new media, these activists carry on. They realize that true change requires a long-term commitment, hard work, and the questioning of old assumptions, old systems, and old ideas.
I’m particularly encouraged by the thoughtfulness and deliberation of the people leading and participating in these movements. As philosopher Daniel Callahan recently pointed out, when thinking about progress, we cannot ignore “its complexity, its shadows, its creation of new problems raised by its solutions to old ones.” History reminds us that policy changes and technical progress are not always accompanied by moral progress. As we continue to advocate for change, it is as important that we examine the consequences of the change we’re encouraging. The hope and optimism available to us are in the honest work that is left to be done. Our future depends on it.