A few years ago I profiled death row inmate Damien Echols for a national magazine. After a badly bungled police investigation, Echols, 18 at the time, was sentenced to death for the 1993 murder of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas.
The harrowing details of Echols’s nearly two-decade long ordeal in prison — 10 in solitary confinement — could erode anyone’s faith in our justice system, but that’s not the larger lesson I took away from the hours spent interviewing Echols, 41, who was released in 2011 when new forensic evidence was brought to light.
Echols said one of the most powerful things he did to get released was take his attention off what he didn’t want — dying on death row — and put it on what he did want: his freedom.
“The more you think about something, the greater the chance of it manifesting in your future,” Echols told me. “This is why it’s so important to remain focused on your desires, and not on your fears.”
“If a racecar driver looks at the wall,” Echols said, “he’ll crash into it.”
He used the analogy of a racecar driver who is trained to look at his instrument panel, the other cars, or the finish line, but never the wall. “If a racecar driver looks at the wall,” Echols said, “he’ll crash into it.”
I think of Echols’s words in times of despair when I find myself unable to fixate on anything but the bleakest possible outcome, and I make myself turn away. When my sister went through ovarian cancer last year, I’d peek at the wall now and then, but I wouldn’t let my attention linger there. Ditto for every family or professional problem I’ve faced.
But never have Echols’s words been more meaningful than last week as I spent the early hours of Wednesday morning watching Donald Trump become our next president. Like so many of us, I saw our country driving full speed ahead into a brick wall of bigotry, misogyny, patriarchy and racism.
But here we are, a week later, and it’s time to shift our weary focus. We must now task ourselves with altering what’s in our direct sight-line and see what we want instead of what we fear.
And what is that? What exactly do we want for our great country going forward? What do we hope to see unfold in the next few years?
Since the morning of November 9 I have been making my list:
I see people of every color, creed, race, religion and sexual orientation standing together in solidarity as our highest leaders hear our voices, then go to work in Washington to uphold our freedoms.
I see hydro and solar power plants fueling a nation of vibrant industry.
I see clear oceans, clean air and thriving forests.
I picture food service and childcare workers given respect and a living wage for their good, hard work.
I imagine a country with continued health care for all, and women in full control of their reproductive rights.
We have to get involved and take action. But first we have to see that world, with as much clarity as we have been considering the devastating alternative.
I see police forces cooperatively working with people of color to use restorative justice to keep all cities safe.
Stop talking about what you don’t want and focus on what you do.
When Echols was in prison he refused to consider the possibility that he would never be released, even while standing ankle deep in sewage in solitary confinement with no reason to believe he could change his fate. He simply would not look at the wall.
If we don’t want to live in Trump’s America, we have to be the change we want in the world. We have to get involved and take action. But first we have to see that world, with as much clarity as we have been considering the devastating alternative. We’re going to have to invoke the powers of our imagination to create that reality and spread that vision from coast to coast, from north to south, and the entire heartland in-between. Then we’re going to have to drive like hell to get there.