A Sense of Urgency

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out deperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on…” We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.

“We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world — a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

“Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter — but beautiful — struggle for a new world. This is the callling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., 4 April 1967
Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence

“We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.” That is what Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. told the American people more than a half century ago, but too few were paying attention, too few wanted to hear. We remember the man and forget his message, as the latter remains inconvenient. The greatest divide in our society isn’t ideological or partisan. It can’t even be simplified into a divide by race or any other standard demographic. Rather, the divide is between those who have a sense of urgency and those who don’t.

Everything comes down to that. It doesn’t matter if you see, understand and acknowledge the problems we face, if you don’t appreciate the struggles and suffering of the victims of these problems. For those who personally know these problems, they don’t have the privilege to be patient for reform to eventually come next election, next generation, or next century. You either feel this sense of urgency or it simply makes no sense to you.

There is a basic and seemingly insurmountable challenge. There appears to be no way to make someone feel this urgency, much less get them to grasp the visceral experience of urgency for those who do feel it. There is no way to communicate this. Either someone gets it or not. Yet the urgency grows as problems worsen for so many. And the conflict between those who do and don’t get it likewise grows. I see no way for this to be easily resolved until the comfortable begin to feel uncomfortable when the dirty masses get restless enough to disturb their slumber and threaten their good life.

For those who don’t feel urgency, they assume the vocally urgent are just complaining. They see them as petulant children who are pestering the responsible adults trying to have moderate, reasonable adult discussion. Only children and ideologues, as they see it, always want to get their own way. These people don’t realize how unreasonable they are being in expecting those who struggle to suffer in silence. Can they really be that disconnected from how bad it has become for those less advantaged and fortunate? Will it really take mass protests or revolution before the clueless finally get that these are real problems that have to be dealt with now and not later?

As an example, consider the worsening unemployment, poverty, and homelessness. The government hasn’t kept full unemployment data since the 1980s. No one knows for sure how bad unemployment is at present. And the mainstream media rarely talks about this in any depth.

It’s as if data not being kept means the problem doesn’t exist. Just ignore the growing number of poor people barely making ends meet or living in homeless camps or ending up in prison. This problem doesn’t exist because it doesn’t impact people who aren’t poor. But even if the problem did exist, I’m sure it would solve itself. We just need to get all the low income people to shut up and quit supporting candidates like Sanders who is a spoiler. Let’s threaten that Trump will win and that’ll shut them up, right?

Homeless camps are popping up in cities all over the country. That is what happened during the Great Depression. And then those temporary homeless camps become permanent shanty towns. There eventually will be a breaking point that easily could turn violent as it did during the Great Depression. People turned on each other. The government was finally forced to intervene, but only after they let the problem get horribly bad for so many.

It’s not even limited to the United States. Worsening poverty and increasing homelessness is found in the UK (“one in ten parents would not be able to pay housing costs during January – and 2.5 million parents were forgoing household essentials, including food, clothes and energy, in order to pay the rent.”), Greece (“number of new homeless as high as 20,000. Moreover, nearly 20% of Greeks no longer have enough money to cover daily food expenses, according to a recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The nation’s unemployment rate is 26%, the highest among 28 European Union members.”), France and all across Europe.

That is just talking about the Western world. On a related note, there is the global refugee crisis. The number of refugees in recent years returned to the levels last seen during WWII and in the past year has hit the highest level ever recorded. This is related to wars, instability, overthrown governments, etc (often caused or contributed to by Western governments), but another major factor is climate change with major droughts. This has been a major problem in the Middle East and Africa, along with parts of Latin America, Asia, and Europe. Scientists, politicians, and even the Pentagon have pointed to the link between climate change and terrorism. This problem is only going to get worse.

Consider also one of the main reasons there are so many homeless and refugees. It’s related. A large number of homeless are veterans who are dealing with neurological and psychological trauma from war. And many refugees are escaping war. Meanwhile, the comfortable back at home in Western countries rarely if ever personally experience war, on either side of the equation. If they did experience it, it would be hard for them ever be fully comfortable again and they would feel cut off from the cud-chewing herd. Many war journalists end up traumatized simply by seeing the ravage caused, an experience that like that of the soldier they’ll never be able to explain to family and friends back home.

It’s not only about such dramatic events as war. For the poor, all of life can be traumatizing. And the traumatized tend to end up poor. The homeless have high rates of mental illness, in general. Obviously, much of that is simply because mental illness doesn’t lead to a well functioning life and we live in a society that is heartless toward those who can’t help themselves. But being homeless probably increases mental illness as well, because of stress and trauma, lack of healthcare, malnutrition, etc. A similar set of problems likely exists for refugees. And it is also likely that refugees that find their ways to other countries often end up homeless or else in severe poverty. It simply sucks being homeless or a refugee, to be made a pariah and cast out from acceptable society.

It makes me wonder if these two problems are more closely related than we normally think. We tend to keep the homeless and refugees in separate categories, but maybe it’s more meaningful to think of them as variants of the same problem. These are people who have no place or purpose in society. They are unwanted and often despised. They are part of a large and ever growing proportion of the global population that is feeling urgent and sometimes causing others to feel urgent.

The response from so many is to ignore the problem and hopes it goes away. Blame the victims of the refugee crisis, turn the refugees away, or force the refugees into camps. Tear down homeless camps, hide the homeless, use hostile architecture, design cities to drive the homeless away, and other similar sociopathic behaviors and authoritarian measures. Interestingly, some of the kindest acts toward the homeless have come from recent refugees, as it often takes someone who personally understands suffering to have compassion.

To put refugees in camps isn’t so different to the reason so many homeless end up in jails and prisons. These are the places where the unwanted and unneeded are stored away. Similar solutions are ghettoes and housing projects. Homeless camps are just a more short term variety of this kind of response. It should be unsurprising that the number of refugees is increasing simultaneously as is the number of homeless and prisoners. There are now more blacks in prison than there were blacks in slavery before the Civil War. There are also more mentally ill people in prison than has been the case since before the Civil War. People tend to be less bothered by refugees, the homelessness, and other undesirables when they aren’t seen.

We always could deal with the fundamental problems that are causing these other problems. But it’s easier to hide them. It’s like the strip mining that looks like a warzone and yet is never seen from the road, the truth obscured behind a a stand of trees and the people who used to live there simply made to go away. Our world is full of invisible problems of invisible people. Invisible that is until they disrupt the social order.

Explain to me again how voting for Hillary Clinton to stop a Donald Trump presidency is going to make a damn bit of difference to those already being fucked over by our society, no matter which party has power. We have elections all the time and here we are—the problems going unsolved, voices of the suffering going unheard, and the desperation and outrage ever increasing.

There are many other problems that could be brought up. There is growing inequality, inferior education system, a permanent underclass, and systemic racism. There is institutional failure, cronyism, corruption, corporatism, regulatory capture, and crumbling infrastructure. There is the military-industrial complex, military imperialism, drug wars, and creeping authoritarianism. There is the general failure of democracy as our society turns into a banana republic and the public loses trust. And, of course, there is the mainstream media’s complicity. We aren’t seriously dealing with any of these problems.

So, what happens next? How will this end? Are you feeling any urgency yet?

* * *

Urgency can mean many things. Within it, there is a seed of radical change, not a return to what was but potentially a transformation. That seed has to be planted and nurtured, if it is to grow.

That is why it takes a broken person to profoundly understand that the system itself is broken. This brokenness isn’t necessarily a loss. It can be taken as an opportunity, like a seed breaking open, a change from one condition to another. Urgency is a starting point and, for that reason, important.

In that light, here is a slightly different view on suffering…

In praise of patience
Resilience is the fashionable prescription for trauma. But bouncing back is not the only – or best – way to bear sorrow
by Samira Thomas

“In this extended form of time, resilience becomes transfigured from the urgency associated with a need for recoil into something that takes its time, and resembles patience.

“Patience, in its original meaning, was a virtue that enabled a person to overcome his suffering and, in some sense, enact understanding in the face of the faults and limitations of others. Patience today might conjure a sense of inactivity, a feeling that it’s about more or less waiting for things to pass. Consider, instead, the term patient. As an adjective, it is the quality of a person who is able to overcome and demonstrate understanding towards others. As a noun, it is a person who is in need of understanding and, specifically, medical care.

“Patience recognises suffering in the difficulties of one’s life and that of another. Nowadays, it might conjure up ideas of complacence but, with a long view of time – in which time is understood as abundant – patience becomes a way of bearing sorrows. Unlike resilience, which implies returning to an original shape, patience suggests change and allows the possibility of transformation as a means of overcoming difficulties. It is a simultaneous act of defiance and tenderness, a complex existence that gently breaks barriers. In patience, a person exists at the edge of becoming. With an abundance of time, people are allowed space to be undefined, neither bending nor broken, but instead, transfigured.

“And it is an act of courage, because only the unknown lies on the other side of the threshold of events we seek to overcome.”

15 thoughts on “A Sense of Urgency

    • I’ve been feeling this urgency for a long time. It’s related to severe depression which gives me a sense of immediacy. Severe depression offers you a stark view of life and death. For my entire adult life, I’ve had the feeling that my time was running out and that depression would eventually catch up with me.

      It’s not lost on me that my government spends more of my tax money on policing and incarceration, the Pentagon and alphabet soup agencies than it spends on helping the most poor and needy. If the government funded research into mental healthcare even to a fraction of what they spend on weapons research, then it’s likely they could have found cures or at least far better treatments for many mental illnesses like depression.

      A sense of urgency is always personal. Either the urgent themselves are struggling and suffering or they know those who are. Having parents who were refugees, one’s child sent off to war, a friend who is homeless, a spouse with a severe mental illness, etc—these are the things that can make these problems seem more real and immediate, in the way no amount of data could ever accomplish. When they happen to you directly, the reality and immediacy are multiplied a thousandfold.

      This can’t be explained to the uninitiated.

    • BTW I added a bit to my post. It occurred to me to bring in another angle related to the examples I was using. It connects it back more to my previous writings on the issues surrounding poverty, racism, and mass incarceration.

      A particularly good book about the data and what it means is Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress by Becky Pettit. Here is a post about it:


  1. This post was initially inspired by the whole campaign mess. In these urgent times, I’ve been surprised by how many people I know seem to feel so little urgency. They might be a bit worried about Trump and so will vote against him, but most of them simply don’t understand why anyone would support Trump in the first place. They don’t understand why people are outraged.

    At the same time, I know other people who like me also feel a sense of urgency. I don’t know too many Trump supporters, other than a second cousin who is a smart guy but is voting Trump as protest of the system. I’m not sure how much of such protest votes are based on urgency, but a fair number of them are.

    A close friend of mine is on the political left and I talk with her regularly. Thinking about her life was another inspiration for this post. She doesn’t usually vote in presidential elections because she sees them as pointless, saving her energy for local elections, but this time around she is more interested than usual in the campaigns for the presidency. She is feeling urgent like so many others and she isn’t sure what to do.

    I have a lot of respect for her. She is quite smart and competent. She has always been high energy and hardworking. She puts me to shame. Opposite of my depression, she has dealt with anxiety disorder for a long time. She used to go into a near-manic mode and she got a lot done, a problem I never have with depression. She has had anxiety for a while and she has struggled with it, but she was managing it.

    The larger problems, though, did begin when she had her first anxiety attacks. It was in the years after she graduated from high school. She moved out to Portland, OR. She was far away from family and friends when she suddenly was faced with anxiety attacks that at times were crippling. She met a guy and they dated, eventually marrying. He was initially helpful. He was there for her when she needed someone and she was appreciative. He is an ambitious guy and so she sacrificed her own career for his. She also got pregnant because he wanted a kid, even though she didn’t.

    The marriage wasn’t perfect. This guy grew up in a dysfunctional family and he had weird notions about the perfect 1950s tv family. He worked, came home, and did nothing. He expected her to do everything else, exactly how and when he wanted it done. She ended up losing many friends in the process.

    Then she had a car accident. It led to brain trauma. That was a number of years ago. She was majorly incapacitated. She had no energy and her brain was in a permanent state of fuzziness. Her husband at the time was entirely unhelpful and expected her to do everything she did before, but she was simply incapable. He was even getting abusive and essentially taking advantage of her weak state. So, she divorced him, after coming to the conclusion that maybe he was a psychopath, as he appears to have no empathy but is very manipulative.

    She did get a settlement, but it only gives her money for a certain number of years. After that, she is on her own. She has sacrificed her career and so has little work experience. And because of her concussion, she might never be able to work a normal job again. On top of this, her daughter has some severe psychological and behavioral problems, maybe Aspergers or something like that, even showing signs of manipulative behavior like the father. Yet my friend would do almost anything for her daughter and has dedicated much of her life to ensure that her daughter gets the help she needs. She is a loving mother and so is worried about the future.

    When I posted on Facebook about my thoughts on urgency, she was the first and only person to respond to the post. I have many liberal/leftist family, friends, and friends of family, and I interact with many of them on Facebook. But, besides my Portland friend, only a particularly caring Canadian friend even bothered to like the post. All those liberals/leftists I know apparently didn’t feel enough urgency to even respond in any kind of way. Like the complaints and outrage of the supporters of Sanders and Trump, these people simply shut out this uncomfortable viewpoint.

    Anyway, here is the comment left by my Portland friend:

    “That is a really good point. I am one of those people who is running out of time and I know a lot of others who are also running out of time. Our bills are relentlessly going up for food, transportation, healthcare, housing. The money coming into our lives isn’t increasing to cover the higher expenses. Jobs either aren’t available, aren’t well paid enough to survive, or could vanish at any second. I now have a disability that may be permanent and I’m a mom, the work world as it is currently structured seems to have no place for me. There are tens of thousands of folks in my position who are injured, old, or otherwise unable to work at the frantic (often low paid) pace our current society seems to require. Programs to help these folks are desperately underfunded or non existent and the political class seems miffed about the exploding levels of homelessness and child poverty.

    “The narrow channel within which many of us are barely making it grows narrower everyday and we’re running out of creative ways to keep going. The choices get uglier and uglier. Give up a car? Give up health insurance? Try to find a room mate?”

    That is what urgency sounds like. The problems people are facing aren’t vague issues and future possibilities. No, these problems are here and now.

    Also, understand this. My friend doesn’t sit around complaining. Comments like this are rare from her. She is a person of action. And she amazingly maintains a positive attitude, refusing to dwell on the negative. She is a natural optimist and always actively looks for opportunities. She doesn’t suffer from victim mentality.

    Still, everyone has their limits. She is being pushed up against and even beyond her limits. And, as she explains, she is running out of time. Her divorce settlement only gives her a certain amount of money for a certain amount of time. When that ends, she literally doesn’t know what she’ll do.

    Even worse, she fully understands what happens to those who fall through the cracks. She has been fortunate enough to use the money she has to buy a small condominium. So, for the time being her housing is set, even if she ends up living the rest of her life in poverty. But not everyone is so lucky, as she is daily reminded. Close to her condominium is a homeless camp that has formed in a public park. These homeless camps have been popping up in Portland and growing larger.

    My friend sees these homeless people and has to deal with them. It’s shitty. She wishes the government would help or the police would at least patrol the area. But no one wants to deal with it. And, of course, desperate homeless people tend not to make good citizens. They shit and piss where they can. They throw their trash around. Crimes increase in the neighborhood. It creates a sense of stark division between the haves and have-nots.

    She doesn’t want to simply hate these people for being homeless. But she is worried about what it all means. And it feels extremely personal to her. She is constantly reminded of the very fate she hopes to avoid. At the same time, she is trying to live a semi-normal life and raise a child. It’s a lot of pressure on a single person. I’m sure she’d rather not imagine what it would be like trying to raise her child in one of those homeless camps.

  2. This testimonial is so moving, Benjamin, it shames me into thinking I’m not doing enough. Thank you for sharing it with us followers. I want my wife to read it.
    I’m fortunate to be in a far more comfortable position, late in life, than your Portland friend will be. My own sense of urgency is driven not by my personal living conditions but simply by idealism and principles (a deep commitment to egalitarianism and non-violence). Like you, I have many friends and acquaintances who claim to be “liberal” or “progressive” but show no sense of urgency at all about the current state of our nation. I find that both frustrating and puzzling.

    The gap between haves and have-nots in this country has been steadily increasing ever since the Reagan years, and as the book by Wilkinson and Pickett, The Spirit Level, shows, it has brought with it a steady decline in our society’s overall quality of life. But the dimensions and details of that decline are kept hidden from public view by a corporate news media that promotes celebrity culture and mass entertainment. The unexpected and enormous outpouring of support for both Trump and Sanders is a form of protest, I think, against this system. For now it may not be enough to effect any change — the establishment candidate, Clinton, will likely prevail despite her general unpopularity and will do all she can to maintain the status quo. But sooner or later there will be a ‘day of reckoning.’ An explosion is brewing; you and your friend are in the majority. And as Yeats says in “The Second Coming”:
    “things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”

    • In a way, I’m sure none of us is doing enough. But that might not be a helpful way of thinking about it.

      I’m always wondering about how changing conditions can create changing perceptions and choices, changing responses and behaviors. We are stuck in patterns. The whole system is interlinking patterns of thinking and acting.

      That is why urgency is important. It creates a break in those habituated patterns. It gives us a glimpse that maybe, just maybe something else is possible. Without something to create that break, we can’t see outside of our situation and we can’t imagine that there is anything else, not really.

      There are many people who feel urgency and the number is growing. Like you, urgency isn’t necessarily dependent on personal suffering and struggle. Many factors are involved in allowing someone to grasp these kinds of issues. It can at times seem like a mystery why one person gets and another doesn’t, even when both people live similar lives and have access to similar knowledge.

      That’s a great book, The Spirit Level. It was one of the books that made me more fully aware of the issues. Before books like that, the author that woke me up to the larger problems was Derrick Jensen. In recent years, there has been criticisms of Jensen. But back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, his work helped me understand something no other author before or since has articulated so well. His early writings have an emotional punch to them.

      I agree with your last point made. The way things are going, it can’t last in its present state. We face the choice of collapse or transformation. It doesn’t have to be violent and disruptive. If we did everything we need to do and did everything right, we could possibly avoid the worst outcomes. But the chances of our society doing that is slim to none. The fact of the matter is we should have been dealing with these problems at least decades ago, if not generations ago.

      By the way, I was talking to my Portland friend last night. She brought up a related problem she is dealing with. Even though at the moment she can’t work a normal job, she can’t get on disability either.

      She has been careful with her money. She has some small savings and was able to swing buying the condo. But if you have any assets at all, you can’t get on disability. So, you have to be poor and desperate before they’ll even consider putting you on a waiting list for disability and that waiting can last for months or years. Also, the only way to get disability is if you’ve been working continuously for 20 months. But she sacrificed her career for her husband. Her work was being a stay-at-home housewife and mother. In our society, that isn’t considered real work.

      Simply being disabled doesn’t mean you can get disability. It appears that some of the most disabled people can have the hardest time getting disability. That is messed up.

      My friend has two years left before her divorce settlement money runs out. She has no job prospects for the kind of work she’d be able to do, part time and low stress along with much flexibility. Yet she’d have to find a job and work it 20 months before she could even consider trying to get disability. And in the process she’d have to also lose most of her assets. So, maybe when her life becomes entirely shitty and she is feeling so desperate that she is at the edge of homelessness, then and only then could she be put on a lengthy waiting list for disability and still even then not be guaranteed to get it.

      This is why there are so many homeless people. Most homeless people are dealing with serious problems, the most common being mental illness. If even the most desperate and dysfunctional people such as mentally ill homeless people can’t get disability pay and public housing, then there isn’t much hope for most other people.

      Times are getting tough.

  3. Here is an example of someone in the liberal class who didn’t feel urgency in the past. He is now admitting that he was wrong in that he should have been feeling urgency, that the comfortable privilege of class had deluded him. A bit late to do much good, but better late than never. This is an adaptation of Kurt Andersen’s Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History.

    “I also thought: Mea culpa. For those past two decades, I’d prospered and thrived in the new political economy. And unharmed by automation or globalization or the new social contract, I’d effectively ignored the fact that the majority of my fellow Americans weren’t prospering or thriving.

    “In 40 years, the share of wealth owned by our richest 1 percent has doubled, the collective net worth of the bottom half has dropped to almost zero, the median weekly pay for a full-time worker has increased by just 0.1 percent a year, only the incomes of the top 10 percent have grown in sync with the economy, and so on. Americans’ boats stopped rising together; most of our boats stopped rising at all. Economic inequality has reverted to the levels of a century ago and earlier, and so has economic insecurity, while economic immobility is almost certainly worse than it’s ever been.

    “What’s happened since the 1970s and ’80s didn’t just happen. It looks more like arson than a purely accidental fire, more like poisoning than a completely natural illness, more like a cheating of the many by the few—and although I’ve always been predisposed to disbelieve conspiracy theories, this amounts to a long-standing and well-executed conspiracy, not especially secret, by the leaders of the capitalist class, at the expense of everyone else. A Raw Deal replaced the New Deal. And I and my cohort of hippie-to-yuppie liberal Baby Boomers were complicit in that.”


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