After an event as brutal and shocking as the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville this past weekend, it can be easy to feel trapped and stagnant and helpless.
There are things you can do: donate money to organizations working in Virginia, volunteer your time to help those in need, get involved in activism, educate yourself and stay informed about what’s going on. But it’s hard, wearing work. And a byproduct of terrorism, the kind of terrorism that drives a car into a crowd of counterprotesters, is a thread of constant, low-level dread suggesting that everything is hopeless and there’s no point in going on. What can you do as an individual to effect change?
This is where art can be helpful. Art is restorative: It takes you out of yourself and puts you into something bigger than you are, and that can make it easier for you to do the work that needs to be done.
In recent weeks, the restorative passage I’ve been returning to again and again is one Leonard Woolf wrote in his memoir, Downhill All the Way. Woolf was Virginia Woolf’s husband; they ran a press together, and while Virginia wrote her novels, Leonard edited literary journals and wrote about history. Downhill All the Way is his most celebrated book, and he wrote it in 1967, when World War II was a relatively recent memory. Here’s the passage:
I will end … with a little scene that took place in the last months of peace. They were the most terrible months of my life, for, helplessly and hopelessly, one watched the inevitable approach of war. One of the most horrible things at that time was to listen on the wireless to the speeches of Hitler — the savage and insane ravings of a vindictive underdog who suddenly saw himself to be all-powerful. We were in Rodmell during the late summer of 1939, and I used to listen to those ranting, raving speeches. One afternoon I was planting in the orchard under an apple-tree iris reticulata, those lovely violet flowers. … Suddenly I heard Virginia’s voice calling to me from the sitting room window: “Hitler is making a speech.” I shouted back, “I shan’t come. I’m planting iris and they will be flowering long after he is dead.” Last March, twenty-one years after Hitler committed suicide in the bunker, a few of those violet flowers still flowered under the apple-tree in the orchard.
Woolf’s commitment to his irises an echo of the famous line attributed to Martin Luther: "If I knew that tomorrow was the end of the world, I would plant an apple tree today!" It’s a reminder that while destructive and terrible things are happening around you, you can help make something beautiful. You can make the world better.