William Stafford on Brexit and Common Demagoguery

Oh, how the world could use a full dose of William Stafford at this critical moment. Though he died nearly 23 years ago, the trail this brilliant poet left behind burns so brightly and what’s at stake is so important that I want to hazard a guess on how he would make sense of recent world events. I believe he would consider our underlying challenge on both sides of the Atlantic to be a kind of “otherness” disease.

Meaning we have entered a time when fear of others is on the rise. And in some cases, there are people who are exploiting those fears. Now let me hasten to say (as I believe Stafford would agree) that demagoguery doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Whenever we have too many people “losing” in too many ways, we are ripe for the harangues of demagogues. I believe it’s at our common peril when we let people fail too often and too hard.

Do I have glib and easy answers for this? No. Stafford himself once said this: “Choices are always Hobson’s choices. All you have to do is get a little more alert to see that even your best moves are compromises—and complicated.”

Stafford had a thought experiment where he asks us to imagine we are in a huge ship going full speed, headed directly for the rocky shore, which is only a few feet away. Suddenly we’re given the steering wheel of the ship and told to save the day. Of course, no one could save the day although technically the ship has not yet crashed. So when we place each other in desperate situations, deep inside a crisis already underway, we are assured desperate results.

Which brings us to demagogues, who are so deeply insecure and fearful, that their fear simply bubbles up and then flows out into the world. It is their self-appointed and relentless battle with evil in the world, that ends up creating so much of it.

So what can any of us possibly do? We can start right where we are by initiating a campaign of understanding for each of the people around us. All it takes is good listening mixed with a healthy portion of empathy and a dash of imagination. What kind of person are they? It is our goal to find out.

Of course, as our understanding muscle grows stronger, we can then branch out taking on people beyond our immediate circle. But don’t worry; we can start right where we are. I’ll venture there’s plenty of misunderstanding to clear up right among our own circle of friends and loved ones. Imagine how they will feel, to be fully understood and gotten!

Who knows what the eventual outcome of Brexit will be for Europe, Great Britain and beyond? Who knows how our own national election will go? Maybe people are already too frightened to be heard and understood. Maybe helping them return to a feeling of hopefulness and connection is too much to hope for. About these things, we must each decide. There are no guarantees.

But I can tell you this. I have a poem-tool to offer for this effort if you decide it is worth it. And yes it is one of my favorite William Stafford poems. It is, “A Ritual To Read To Each Other.” I’ve spoken it so many times and to so many people that it has worn a groove in my synapses. It bears repeating. I feel it will help us create patterns in this world we truly want. So if you are yearning and ready to follow your own God home, take a listen below. For it is true: the darkness around us is deep…

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