Living for the chance of success

Living for the chance of success

Every generation fights overwhelming odds for a more just world—and for the next generation to have the chance to fight, too.

Liz James
Liz James in front of her church's "Nuclear Weapons Free Zone" sign.

© Meghan Mickelson

© Meghan Mickelson


I still vividly remember the first thing I saw when I entered my very first Unitarian Universalist church. I stepped into a foyer filled with dried flowers, pamphlets, and book tables, and saw that straight ahead of me was a sign hanging front and center, in the spot where most churches I had been to had an image of Jesus on the cross.


I remember this moment so clearly because up until that point I’d assumed that all churches were nuclear-weapons-free zones. Huh.

That church—now my home congregation—is a tiny, warm community full of kindly professorial types and raging grannies who light candles during joys and concerns for the joy that “this week I get to vote, and I hope everyone here will vote too, and I remind you that some of the candidates are more in sympathy with our principles than others. And I can’t tell you which right now but you should know what I mean and if you don’t, come talk to me at coffee hour.” I’ve loved that congregation deeply since the moment I walked in and was surrounded by the familiar smells of beeswax and fair-trade coffee and saw that sign.

‘I have decided to base my entire life on the 5 percent chance we might succeed.’

It was years until I learned the story behind the sign, which had gone up decades earlier and eventually became part of the visual noise so that nobody but newcomers really saw it. I happened to move in beside an elderly couple who’d been very involved in the congregation when they were younger. We’d take our new neighbors cookies from time to time, and my two preschool boys would splash exuberantly through the puddles that always formed in the sidewalk between our two houses. Len would thank us profusely, and Joanna would look happy to see the kids but also unable to place us as she struggled to cover for her deteriorating memory.

It wasn’t until Joanna’s funeral that I learned about her younger days as an activist. In old newspaper clippings, she was quoted telling the story of gazing down at her sleeping babies as a new mother. She was—like I had been as a new mom—seized by a desperate conviction that all babies should be protected.

Joanna became part of a deeply stubborn disarmament movement in our small Canadian town. Ann, another congregant, told me how they would go from house to house asking people to put “Nuclear Weapons Free Zone” signs in their windows. In between, they’d have tea on Joanna’s porch and watch their young kids play, probably splashing in puddles just like the ones my boys now toddle through.

I was born in 1978, and my memories of the Cold War consist of our teacher showing us footage of the Berlin Wall coming down and passionately urging us to remember that we were here for this historic moment. She kept saying that nobody could have imagined this ten years ago, and I kept thinking, “I don’t understand why it is such a big deal about this wall coming down. It’s really old, and there are people climbing all over it; of course it’s gonna come apart.”

Over coffee after Joanna’s funeral, Ann tried to impress upon me the hopelessness of the situation at the time. She told me the story of asking Joanna, in a fit of despair, whether she thought there was any chance they’d succeed in preventing nuclear war.

“I think,” Joanna told her, “that there’s probably about a 95 percent chance we’ll fail.”

“But,” she added, “I have decided to base my entire life on the 5 percent chance we might succeed.”

A politician once talked to Ann about those years. At first when he was going door to door he’d avoid houses with the “Nuclear Weapons Free Zone” signs, but eventually it was nearly every house, and he had to adopt a pro-disarmament platform. But at the time, Ann described, they worked week after week and month after month and felt like they saw no difference at all. They couldn’t tell if their efforts were working, but they put everything into that 5 percent chance of success.

“You won,” I told her, grinning a little too broadly for someone at a funeral.

“I guess,” said Ann, who can be a little glass-half-empty about these things.

“There’s no ‘I guess,’” I told her emphatically. “The Cold War ended without a single missile fired. How can you call that anything but a win?”

“We won for now,” Ann conceded. She has been around too long to believe that any moment in history is a definitive win—or loss.

We don’t fight under the goal of a just world forever. We fight under the goal of a more just world, and the chance for the next generation to fight again. And although our kids don’t cower under their desks for missile drills, they do practice for lockdowns. They will grow up to fight in some battle: for climate justice, for gun control, or maybe even for peace in the face of a significant armed conflict. But if we continue to fight for our beliefs, through our example they will fight knowing that it is possible to win a long-shot fight, and that it is possible and good to gamble on that. They—and I—will fight carrying the gift of Joanna and Ann’s story.

They thought there was a 5 percent chance they’d succeed.

They saw no change.

But they kept fighting, for their kids and mine. And because they won that fight, you and I now get the chance to fight. Let’s keep fighting for that safer, more just world, even if it sometimes feels like a long shot that we’ll win. Let’s live our lives for the chance we’ll succeed.

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