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THE SOUL OF ACTIVISM
Excerpt from Terry Patten’s new book “The New Republic of the Heart”
We become activists after we notice suffering and destruction, cruelty and indifference, waste and peril, and the harm in which we are living—and heed the biblical injunction to “not stand idly by.” The injustice may be done to us, or to friends or strangers or other forms of life, or even to values. When we see such injustice, we feel absolutely compelled to act.
We speak up. We listen to the stories of others who have been through similar experiences, or whose own experiences inform us and rouse us to action. When a group of us agrees, and we dare to believe we can make a difference in some way, and we cooperate to make something happen, we have become activists. Sometimes we are acting on our own behalf, or on behalf of our group, and sometimes on behalf of others.
It can be scary to defy the norm, to dare to attempt to exert influence. You must be willing to take risks. Sometimes they are just the “opportunity costs” of giving your energy to a cause instead of investing in yourself. Sometimes they are risks of ridicule, rejection, and retribution. And sometimes they are big risks—risks of real losses to one’s job, career, community standing, and personal comfort. Sometimes there are even risks of imprisonment, violence, torture, death, or retribution against loved ones.
Wherever we may be on the spectrum of activism, to become an activist takes courage. Activists are those who dare to go against the grain of what people around them are doing. They speak truths that others do not want to hear. They defy the norm in service of a higher principle.
Activism expresses a heroic impulse. But activists need not appear extraordinary. The values that inspire activism are the same values that drive the classic stories of literature, art, and popular entertainment. Everyone who begins as an underdog, or as an ordinary individual who leads an ordinary life, and then becomes challenged or moved to stand for higher values on behalf of a community or principle, is expressing the heroic qualities of the activist. These implicit values have been imparted, via parables and stories and poetry, to all of us, from the time we were children.
Activism expresses fellowship, connection, relationship, a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood. When we act on our connectedness to others, we heal something essential in ourselves. We locate ourselves in something deeper than our postmodern alienation. Our connectedness in the service of larger things transcends the superficiality of many relationships and associations. In this era when traditional communities and extended families are the exception, the community of like-minded and heart-based activists can be an essential healing and grounding force. This is all the more true because as activists we are, to a degree, voluntary outcasts from some elements of mainstream society.
Activism is sometimes characterized as angry and strident. And sometimes it is. Sometimes anger is necessary and appropriate. Healthy anger has an essential function in advancing history. But anger tends to summon fear, and it easily becomes destructive. Healthy activism is most fundamentally an expression of care rather than anger. It is love in action.
The soul of activism was captured by Pope Francis’s invocation, “Let us be ‘protectors’ of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.” This is an inherently rewarding and blessed state. As Marianne Williamson succinctly put it, “A life of love and effort on behalf of the collective good promises the satisfaction of knowing that you are doing what you were born to do.”
History is replete with horrible human suffering—from plagues to wars to holocausts to unspeakable cruelties against women, slaves, adulterers, gays, heretics, infidels, people of color (and those who consorted with them), aboriginals, foreigners, animals, and the natural environment. And it is only because these horrors were witnessed and addressed by activists (humanitarians, prophets, saints, scientists, physicians, abolitionists, political dissidents) that even more unspeakable atrocities or more horrific scenarios were avoided. In a similar fashion, it will take activism to avoid or mitigate the worst-case scenarios that our own prophets—often our scientists—are warning against.
Our creative powers—the very creativity that enables us to realize more positive outcomes—are mobilized by taking our threats seriously and doing all we can.
Middle-class citizens of imperfect Western democracies benefit from science and technology and rational discourse, privy to all the converging streams of human culture, including our highest wisdom traditions. We have a chance to live lives that are extraordinarily comfortable, safe, free, and creative. In these times, if we have the opportunity to live extraordinarily meaningful lives, I feel we have an obligation to do so. If the measure of a human life is its chance to have significance that extends beyond itself, then we’ve hit the jackpot. We are alive at game time on the planet, when everything that we value is genuinely threatened, when it’s time for all hands on deck.
When we see one another, realizing that we are in this together, and that the situation requires our collective responses, something happens. Our eyes meet; our different ways of being inspired and activated coincide. That higher purpose exalts our friendship and cooperative synergy, imbuing our connection with potential significance.
THE SHADOW SIDE OF ACTIVISM
Meaningful service gives activists’ lives deep purpose and significance.
And solidarity and fellowship can be gratifying and nurturing. Our sincere care can feed us, generating healthy neurochemicals. And we experience great joy in our victories, even small ones.
And yet we also endure much frustration. Overall, the concerns that motivate activists have also tended to drain us. Any innovative social initiative must overcome tremendous inertia. Institutional change tends to take place very slowly, with victories coming only after many years of very little apparent progress. And there is little funding for it, so activists often make personal sacrifices in service of a cause—and then we rarely see quick successes. Even when we do, we often see our gains brutally reversed. Environmental destruction, bad policies, suffering, injustice, hatred—it all persists, even as we work passionately. Meanwhile, all of our lives, activists included, are visited by what Buddhists call the “heavenly messengers” of sickness, old age, and death. Activism requires enduring through difficulty.
Activists take on an extra commitment. In addition to the need to survive and thrive personally, we are committed to making a difference at the level of society. So we experience the ongoing progress of our causes as our own advances and setbacks. This can add to our stress. And we often find ourselves competing, at a disadvantage, with people who don’t take on these extra responsibilities. Even the most heart-centered, healthy, joyful activists feel these stresses. How many activists talk about burnout? It’s no wonder most people do not choose this path, even though the highest foundational values that our greatest literature inspires in every child imply the courage to take a social stand.
It takes real wisdom and skill to keep our hearts open without letting the suffering in the world drain and deplete us. This is one of the most important capacities activists must build. We have to learn to put on our own oxygen mask first—silently, internally, many times a day. The most basic level of the inner work is an absolute requirement: we must learn to manage our own emotions and motivations. If we develop the knack for caring for ourselves and allowing ourselves to be fed by the regenerative dynamics of our sincere care for the planet, the people, and the cause, we can learn to counteract the tendency to be depleted and drained by
Of course, that’s easier said than done. Many activists do get drained, and then live in stress, with a deep underlying sense of alarm, grief, or dread. This can go on for years, even decades. It eventually degrades our immune system and neurology. In such states, judgment tends to be distorted. If the outer work is always prioritized over the inner work, personal needs go unmet. This inevitably undermines well-being and effectiveness, and often creates a subtle residue of resentment and righteousness. Activists sometimes lose humor and perspective. We become grim and pessimistic, or resentful and impatient, or sad and depleted, or righteously judgmental.
If we have been injured by systemic corruption or oppression or other gross injustices, we may also have good reason to be angry. In that case, our task is to develop an intelligent relationship with our anger. Anger is very tricky—it’s a source of great power, but it can undermine everything it is trying to accomplish. Our job is to learn how to use the energy of that anger intelligently, so that we can thrive and create real change.
Meanwhile, our trauma and emotions deserve respect, sincere care, and compassion from others. Even more important, we need self-respect and self-compassion. We generally have legitimate grievances that need to be addressed. However, the attitudes of victimhood and grievance do not empower us, they are not psychologically healthy, and they certainly don’t help us communicate effectively. The people we are communicating with, even those we must oppose, cannot effectively be addressed as if they were the perpetrators of our trauma, who owe us a remedy. To the degree that our trauma has impaired us, it is imperative that we recover enough to end the cycle of injury and trauma. And that requires healing, new self-awareness, humility, and the courage to understand ourselves and engage life in positive terms. Then we can channel our energy in service of higher values, rather than recycling our unconscious compensatory motivations.
That is why inner work is so necessary. Practitioners must reconnect to the deeper meanings of their lives, and to their deepest sources of joy and inspiration. In communities of practice, they can do this together. They can support one another, and be buoyed by the awakened clarity, love, courage, and insight of their fellow practitioners. We must remember that self-care is the foundation for all healthy care. Inner work is often the remedy to the ailments common to activists.
THE OUTER WORK IMPLIES THE INNER WORK
What will it take to co-create a new way of being human, and a new world? How do we get started? How do we transform what we are already doing (and how we are already being) so that we can actually achieve new results?
Clearly we must move toward a convergence of the “inner work” and the “outer work.” This implies a life of practice and a truly integral revolution of the being.
As we’ll soon see, this is already underway. We are awakening to a deeper, more spiritually grounded awareness, and being restored and inspired by insights and intuitions borne by higher states of consciousness. We are awakening to new ways of seeing our work and the world. And we are awakening to new forms of outside-the-box thinking, with higher-order meta-perspectives on the issues facing our planet.
Meanwhile, more and more spiritual practitioners are coming to recognize that our impulse toward awakening and self-actualization can be fulfilled only by being of real benefit to others. As we in the practicing community awaken to a new sense of urgency, our inner work begins expressing itself in more and more consequential outer work, service, social enterprise, volunteerism, and other good works that make a meaningful impact on people’s lives. As we awaken, a new kind of activist is awakening within us.
Finally, as we increasingly understand the inseparability of the inner and outer work, we are realizing that an important part of our work is to awaken ourselves and others into love and freedom and clarity. This is the “activism of awakening.” And we are beginning to see how such awakening—far from taking us away from the “on-the-ground” work—is actually a crucial dimension of even the most grounded initiatives focused on tangible benefits to systems, structures, people, and the planet.
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From The New Republic of the Heart by Terry Patten, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2018 by Terry Patten. Reprinted by permission of publisher.