In Times of Grief, Joy Fuels My Fight

Panthea Lee
16 min readApr 30, 2021

Reflections on “the light at the end of the tunnel”, and the fires that rage. On holding righteous rage, tending to sacred joy, and the choices now in front of us.

One year ago, Arundhati Roy published “The Pandemic is a Portal” and her words were adopted as the rallying cry of the social change set. In shock and grasping for answers in those early days of COVID, her essay gave us purpose. Its final words:

“And in the midst of this terrible despair, [coronavirus] offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

Roy’s words provided direction to our disorientation, and meaning to our suffering. We quoted them in meetings and workshops, and used them as touchstones as we reprogrammed our work. We cheered the passage of progressive policies forced by the pandemic, convinced that these were signs of the more just future to come. Even as we mourned, we held on to the belief that having laid bare the gross inequities of our world, the pandemic would open new paths to social transformation.

Burning pyres of COVID victims in a crematorium in India. Apr 28, 2021. Photo: Danish Siddiqui / Reuters.

Yet one year on, we struggle to name any structural, lasting change that has resulted from COVID — or even signs of transformation-in-the-making. This week, one full year after we committed to walk through the portal, Roy published another essay on the current devastation in India, and the series of government failures that enabled it. Virologists predict that cases in India will soon grow to more than 500,000 a day. Roy’s final words this time: “No, India cannot be isolated. We need help.”

In New York, where over half the population has received at least their first COVID shot, pandemic-as-a-portal seems to be going the way of last summer’s Black square: fashionable to embrace upon launch, inconvenient to be reminded of later.

In past weeks, as people talk excitedly of “seeing the light at the end of the tunnel”, I’ve brought up Roy’s 2020 piece to try and summon that pandemic-as-a-portal energy once again.

The responses are sheepish, as if “we will never return to an unjust ‘normal’!” was an embarrassing slip from our younger, more foolish selves. In reminding us of our vows from one year ago, it’s as if I’m pulling out photos from a party that got out of hand. Now sober — or rather, vaccinated — many wish to distance ourselves from that heady period, to turn our collective gaze away. Certainly in NYC, the energy is distinctly “let’s get back to brunch!”

Except those weren’t naive, foolhardy sentiments. At the pandemic’s peak in the rich world, many were finally forced to confront the consequences of unchecked capitalism, captured government, and criminal inequities— consequences to which we had either contributed or turned a blind eye. As we watched death tolls rise, and the disproportionate pains suffered by communities of colour, the working class, the homeless, the undocumented, the uninsured, the elderly, and others capitalism forgot or rejected, many shuddered and vowed “never again”. Many of these were white liberals and their accomplices. They were those sitting within public and social institutions who could no longer avert their gaze, as the limits of their apolitical approaches to incremental do-gooderism became damningly clear.

Then, last summer, the largest uprising for racial justice of my generation erupted. Within weeks, public support for Black Lives Matter had surged across the US. This was another on-in-a-lifetime reckoning, as many grappled with their complicity in upholding white supremacy. Sales of anti-racism books soared. Racist heads rolled. Hands were wrung.

Source: Pew Research Center, Oct 2020.

But by September, just a few short months later, public support for BLM had already dropped significantly in the US, most notably among white Americans. By October, according to a Pew survey, Americans were evenly split on whether the increased focus on racial inequality would translate into long-term policy change. When asked whether the US “had gone far enough in giving Black people equal rights to white people”, the views of white Americans were virtually unchanged from 2019 polling.

As political science professor Michael Tessler noted, “This decline in public opinion is consistent with a long line of political science research that tells us that the effects of events on public opinion tend to last only for as long as they are at the forefront of the country’s — or, in this case, one group’s — collective consciousness.” His prognostication: “Without prolonged activism and sustained media attention, the impact of [2020’s] protests on white public opinion could evaporate entirely.”

But what are the costs of prolonged activism and sustained media attention?

Activists are burnt out. We are sick of having to defend our fundamental humanity. We are exhausted from having to prove that we are worthy of basic dignity and protections. We have been hollowed out by the trauma and the grief.

Media attention requires disasters that are “spectacular” (e.g. rife with drama, full of captivating visuals) and with high death tolls. Or it requires grotesque human tragedy. After a year of activists sounding the alarm on escalating anti-Asian violence across the US and begging for support, it took the Atlanta spa shootings, an act of extreme horror, for the media to finally pay attention.

How many people have to die for you to believe, and to continue believing, that the US is nowhere close to “far enough” in giving Black people equal protections and rights? How much more needless suffering do you need to witness, how much more evidence on a platter must we serve up, before you will truly commit to dismantling systems of oppression? How many more of our hearts need to shatter, over and over and over again, until the shards are so many and so small they can no longer be put back together, before you will divest from the system that breaks us?

The Fires Still Raging

Protesters marching in the wake of the death of Daunte Wright. Photo: Victor J Blue / The New York Times.

As many hurry back to brunch, the fires still rage.

In the US, since the start of 2021, there have been at least 147 mass shootings. While some celebrated Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdict for the murder of George Floyd, others mourned the loss of the 64 people who were killed by police over the period of the trial.

In India, over 2,000 people a day are dying from COVID. In Ethiopia, over 200 people have died from ethnic and political clashes in April alone. In Myanmar, since the February 1 coup, the military has killed nearly 750 people with barely a meaningful peep from the international community. In China, 1.5 million Uyghurs continue to be detained in concentration camps. And those are just some of the most urgent humanitarian crises. In recent months, we’ve seen devastating attacks on human rights and democracy in Cameroon, Hong Kong, Hungary, Kurdistan, Mali, and more. Adding fuel to the fires are the responses from those in power: official and widespread denial, solutions that aren’t really solutions, and endless streams of “thoughts and prayers”.

What does it mean to live in a state of perpetual grief and mourning? To experience and bear witness to so much collective trauma? What does it do to our spirits and our imaginations?

And what is the cumulative toll of all the state-sanctioned gaslighting? What does it do to our collective consciousness to hear holders of high office insist “this is not who we are” when violent oppression is at the heart of what their institutions have long incentivized and nurtured?

We are furious, grief-stricken, and exhausted. I use dissociation as a crutch to get through my days. Many are at a loss for what to do. The Big Fights have wrung us out. Friends confess they are ready to check out entirely, or to work at a much smaller scale; to embrace small is beautiful. Because the neverending battles are breaking us.

But we can’t turn away from the Big Fights; rather, we must find healthy, sustainable ways to face them. Not in a sleep-eight-hours-and-guzzle-green-smoothies way, but in a deep, soul-sustaining, energy-expanding way. And recently, I’ve been trying to understand just what that looks like for myself.

Tending to Our Sacred Joy

Image & Art: Amanda Everich

Over the past two months, I’ve been part of a glorious circle of 20ish womxn and non-binary folks of colour, working to decolonize and reclaim our joy.

I could write a book on this experience and what it has meant to me, especially in a time of deep grief, but I won’t. What happens in Circle stays in Circle. But I do want to share some reflections, because I believe the space created by two magical multihyphenates (healer and organizer Xóchicoatl Bello, and artist and educator Amanda Everich) are so necessary in and for our world. As these sages pointed out in our first gathering, many of us work day in and day out for justice and liberation. But the spaces in which we do this work are often themselves unjust, stifled, captured.

So how do we break free? How do we embody our aspiration? How do we call in the energy we seek?

Our circle was a space to explore these questions, and to experiment with new practices. Together, we challenged individualism, efficiency, and productivity; we rejected Western definitions of success. Checking in at the start of each gathering, simply responding to the question “where are you at today?”, could take up to two hours, as we listened attentively and generously to the response of every single beautiful soul gathered. Shares often meant tears. Several of us have had intimate experience with police violence and state brutality, and recent events triggered our trauma responses. We shared our hearts, our fears, our hopes, and our questions — not to find answers, but to simply be heard. To have our humanity seen and our realities affirmed. We held each other through laughter and tears, through song and silence, through mourning and celebration.

Our discussions were slow, meandering, delicious. We explored how to reclaim our lineages as sources of wisdom and strength. We co-wrote poems and songs and performed them for one another. We reminded each other that we can only serve others after we’ve cared for ourselves. We had Zoom dance parties by candlelight, to shimmy, shake, and summon the joy back into our bodies.

And slowly, supported by these teachers, I remembered that my joy is survival, not luxury. It must be honoured and nurtured in spite of the grief. And each day, when I felt the heaviness getting to be too much, I would repeat a few lines from our collective prayer, written by Xóchi:

I deserve joy
Creative, expansive, juicy, restful, dreamy joy
My joy leaves honey where scars once laid
My divine Taiwanese joy heals

Our joy is resistance
Our joy sets our ancestors free
Our joy nourishes a healed future
Our joy is what the world has been waiting for

The seeds planted in that circle are now sprouting across my life and work. Many days, I still feel wobbly and disoriented. My phone buzzes with vaccine selfies from friends in rich countries, despairing news from friends in the majority world, and advice on where to buy mace and learn self-defense from Asian friends in the US.

But I refuse to let grief consume me and I refuse to succumb to overwhelm; that would be letting injustice win. I now see that the only way I can keep going is by nurturing and tending to my joy. When I do, I discover more spaciousness within myself. I find my love grows fiercer and my resolve grows stronger; I find more energy than I knew I had to keep fighting.

Simultaneously Holding Grief & Joy

The Protect Asian Lives Gathering on April 17, 2021, in NYC. Photo: Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet.

“White supremacy wants us to drown in our grief, but in our celebration, that’s how we fight back,” roared cultural organizer Thanushka Yakupitiyage. “We protect each other. We set the terms of our liberation,” The crowd cheered.

Two weeks ago, on a chilly spring day, I found myself at Manhattan’s East River Park at a gathering to Protect Asian Lives. The stage was covered in flowers brought by attendees. Restaurants were handing out free food — not granola bars, but real nourishment, as in huge kebab skewers and delicious baked goods. There were care stations stocked with water, menstrual products, and sanitizer. Community organizations were tabling to highlight their mutual care initiatives; I signed up for a healing-through-cooking community workshop. This was not the usual rally.

This was one month after the Atlanta spa shootings. The news had shattered me. As I read the stories of the six Asian women killed — Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng — I was reminded of my mother and my aunties: fierce women who had left their countries so their children could have brighter futures, who swallowed daily indignities in systems that dehumanized them, who worked themselves to the bone to provide for their families.

As I read news reports with statements from the shooter and the police, memories flooded back of all the ways that I, as an Asian woman, have been fetishized and invisibilized. All the ways I have been used and abused. By strangers, by mentors, by colleagues, by intimate partners. I thought about how lucky I am to have broken free of experiences that crushed me, and how so many never get to do so.

And so I found myself at the East River, at this beautiful gathering put on by a group of queer Asian, Black, and Latinx artists and organizers. They were motivated by the belief that the liberation of all marginalized communities requires first learning about one another’s different, layered struggles. So they produced this gathering of learning, healing, and love. While the event centered Asian lives, it was designed to build solidarity among all BIPOC communities suffering under white supremacy.

“The systems that oppress you are the same that oppress me, so your liberation is also my liberation,” said artist and sex worker Sammy Kim, one of the lead organizers, who paid homage to the Black freedom fighters upon whose revolutionary ideas and work we build.

Treya Lam & the Resistance Revival Chorus at Protect Asian Lives gathering. Photo: Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet.

Treya Lam and the Resistance Revival Chorus sang medicine songs to soothe our tender hearts. Drag poet The Illustrious Pearl tore down the house with a tribute to Cantopop legend Anita Mui. Community organizer Clara Lu played beloved Taiwanese classic “The Moon Represents My Heart” on the guzheng, an ancient instrument that my dad also plays, and I cried. (For a treat, watch the ASL interpreter interpret Lu’s guzheng performance.) At dusk, serenaded by a concert violinist, healer and event MC Jezz Chung led us through a dreamy group meditation.

After the talks and performances, we all went to the stage, grabbed armfuls of the flowers we’d brought, and gave them to one another. In sharing beauty, strangers became friends. And we danced into the night, bouquets flailing and petals aflutter. The air was electric. We had gathered in pain, communed through grief, and pushed through to find the joy that had eluded us individually, for it could only be conjured and created collectively.

I used to wonder how others could laugh and dance and celebrate in spite of the suffering all around us. As an empath, I feel pain deeply. Tragic news can send me spiraling. I now understand that laughter, dance, and celebration do not negate injustice nor diminish suffering—they are the fuel that helps us overcome them.

“The most authentic thing about us,” Ben Okri once wrote, “is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love, and to be greater than our suffering.” Cultivating our joy enables us to face into the pain, to stare down injustice, and to find the strength to keep going. Our joy is sacred; it grounds and heals and propels.

To be clear, the joy I’m talking about cannot be structured, packaged, contained, or sold; it is intimate and unique to each of us. For me, joy is hot oil sizzling as it hits a mound of ginger and scallion. Joy is dancing for hours on end— ideally by moonlight and to Janelle Monáe. Joy is quiet Sundays on the couch. Joy is seeing your beloveds grow into the strongest, fiercest, truest versions of themselves. Joy is bellylaughs. Joy is sending a loved one the perfect poem at the precise time they needed it. Joy is speaking truth to corrupt power. Joy is being unabashed in our dreams and dogged in our fights. Joy is rallying with others to reclaim justice as our birthright.

In this moment, as the privileged class begins our return to mindless consumption, I worry hedonism is being confused for joy. Joy is neither escapism nor denial nor magical thinking. It cannot be manufactured nor found in fleeting hits of dopamine. Joy is not “a good job”: one that provides stability and a pension in exchange for your values and ideals. Joy is not performing for the social media hamster wheel of relevance. Joy is not the psychosocial buffering of hyperconsumption. Joy is not vying for MVP status in the end-game of capitalism. Joy is not bottomless brunch.

More Portaling, Less Brunching

Carolina Đỗ speaking at the Protect Asian Lives gathering in NYC. Photo: Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet.

One year ago, I wrote about the contrast between community-driven and institutionally-driven responses to the unfolding pandemic. Many colleagues at major institutions agreed with me, but asked me to be patient: big bureaucracies need time, they cooed; we need to go through the planning cycles, they said.

I’ve since advised, formally and informally, about a dozen strategic planning processes. And here’s the thing: Most institutions are being bold in rhetoric, but business-as-usual in practice. Most are using the same approaches, consulting the same traditionally pedigreed “experts”, and blushing when I bring up their public statements of last summer.

As I remind people of our vows to treat the pandemic as a portal, some have responded by encouraging me to “cheer up” and “enjoy life a little”. It’s the professional version of telling women to smile.

Understand this: I am full of cheer, just as I am full of rage. Both can and do co-exist. I enjoy life plenty — it is what allows me to keep pounding at this work.

Some seem perplexed by my energy: “but we’ve been doing this for 15 years, how can you still be so angry?”. Or by how I spend my time: “you’re still going to marches? but you have access now… why still be on the streets?”. (Lots of reasons, including this.)

There’s a direct correlation between the amount of privilege one holds and how much they’re trying to talk me down from righteous anger, to tell me to be patient, to wait until X process or Y discussions are done. They’re the ones that can afford to wait. Their families aren’t dying. Their communities aren’t under attack. Their security isn’t threatened. There is always more time.

Yes, we’ve all been through a lot in the last year. Many have seen immense loss — of loved ones, of jobs, of stability, of dreams — and yet, instead of ostriching from continued suffering, we must face into them. And the only way we can do that sustainably is by rediscovering and nurturing our joy.

Intellectualizing is a distancing technique. So is continuing on the broken, murderous, jerry-rigged hamster wheel of barely-surviving we’ve built for ourselves. We need to drop into our hearts. We need to pay close attention to our rage, and stay with it. We need to tap into our grief and nurture our joy. We need to use our emotions as the powerful forces for change that they are.

We are now in a liminal period. This is a decisive moment in how we shape our futures, and we’ve got some choices to make. What that looks like for each of us will be different. For me, it’s rallying around communities groups I love who making change in my neighbourhood of Bed-Stuy; championing radical visionaries for high office in my city of New York; organizing for Asian histories and healing to be centered in forward policy dialogues in my adopted country of America; and supporting campaigns for global solidarity in COVID response and equitable vaccine access.

(On the last point, I urge you to learn about and support the fight for a People’s Vaccine. To date, only 0.2% of all vaccines have been administered in low-income countries. The proposal for a waiver of intellectual property protections on COVID-19 products during the pandemic is being opposed by many rich nations. Big Pharma companies in the US have deployed over 100 lobbyists to defeat the IP waiver request at the World Trade Organization. We are at a critical moment in this fight.)

The 1918 Spanish flu reached the scale of devastation it did because of racism and official, widespread denial. At the time, eugenics was a mainstream view that informed pandemic responses. Beating the Spanish flu thus required defeating the racist, classist ideologies of the day. When we finally recognized that neither individuals nor groups of “the wretched” were to blame for catching an infectious disease, we were able to usher in revolutions in public health such as socialized medicine.

Today, it’s clear that it’s more than our healthcare systems that need a total rethink. We need massive transformations in how we organize our economies, govern our societies, and relate to one another. We need transformations rooted in a politics of solidarity and joy, and shepherded by distributed, heart-first leadership. And we need to get going now. Because the disaster capitalists are well organized and ready to go.

So for those in the “I see the light at the end of the tunnel” camp, remember what this global pandemic has taught us: all our fates are intertwined. We now face a choice. We can choose to recall our righteous rage of last April and, now with more freedom and capacity, harness that generative energy. We can choose to nurture the joy of solidarity, and use it as a source of propellant strength. Or we can turn away, say it’s all been too much, and order another round of mimosas.

What will you choose?


With deep gratitude to Xóchicoatl Bello, Amanda Everich, Troels Steenholdt Heiredal, James Reeves, Kemi Ilesanmi, the sisterhood (Aarathi, Beza, Candy, Erica, Fatou, Georgia, Katherine, Rose, Tricia, Yas, Zara), and my decolonizing joy fam for all the inspiration and support that informed this piece.



Panthea Lee

writer, activist, and transdisciplinary strategist / designer / facilitator in service of life and liberation