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Making Our Lives Count
Souls are like athletes that need opponents worthy of them if they are to be
tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers.
We're often taught to view social involvement as a zero-sum game. With all our life pressures and the stress that comes with them, we barely have time for family and friends. How could we possibly take on some demanding cause?
Yet for all the frustration we expect, when we do get involved, we get a lot back: new relationships, fresh skills, a sense of empowerment, pride in accomplishment. "A rich life," writes philosopher and theologian Cornel West, is fundamentally a life of serving others, "trying to leave the world a little better than you found it.... This is true at the personal level ... [but there's also] a political version of this. It has to do with what you see when you get up in the morning and look in the mirror and ask yourself whether you are simply wasting time on the planet or spending time in an enriching manner."
Again and again, I've heard active citizens say that what motivates them the most is the desire to respect what they see in the mirror. The exercise isn't about vanity, but about values, about taking stock of ourselves and comparing the convictions we say we hold with the lives we actually lead. It's about seeing ourselves from the viewpoint of our communities, the earth, maybe even God. If eyes are windows to the soul, and faces reflections of character, looking in the mirror lets us step back from the flux of our lives and hold ourselves accountable.
Sound a bit daunting? It can be. As the saying goes, not one among us is without fault. But such self-examination also can be enormously rewarding. For it's equally true that not one among us lacks a heart, which is the wellspring of courage (the word is derived from coeur , French for heart). At the core of our being lie resources many of us never dream we possess, much less imagine we can draw upon.
"I Never Knew I Had It"
Virginia Ramirez, of San Antonio, Texas, could easily have lived out her days without ever discovering her hidden inner strength. She left school after eighth grade to get married. "That was what most Hispanic women in my generation did. My husband went to work after sixth grade." Although dropping out seemed normal at the time, she felt frustrated when she couldn't help her children with their homework, and dreamed of resuming her education someday. Virginia wasn't completely detached from her community: She was active in the PTA, "not running the meetings, but making the cookies and punch, carrying out the tasks." She'd baby-sit for her neighbors, help in whatever ways she could, "doing basic community work without realizing it." Mostly, though, she focused on private life, raising her five children while her husband worked for a taxi company.
When Virginia was forty-five, she realized that an elderly neighbor was getting sick every winter. The neighbor was a widow who lived in a house so dilapidated that it couldn't retain heat. "She was one of those people who always paid her taxes on time, always faithfully making out her little money orders. But she couldn't afford to repair her house, and everyone around here was just as poor. So I went with her to city agencies trying to get help. They kept sending us from place to place, from department to department. Finally she died of pneumonia. The paramedics said she'd never have died if her house hadn't been so freezing cold.
"I was very angry," Virginia recalls. "I'd never been so angry in my life. This woman had done everything she was supposed to, and now she was dead because no one could help her fix her house. Someone said there's this community organization called COPS, and maybe they could help. I'd heard of them before, but thought they were too radical, a bunch of nuts."
At that time, in the early 1980s, the largely volunteer-based COPS (Communities Organized for Public Service) had been around for eight years. Growing out of a network established by the late Saul Alinsky, the godfather of modern community organizing, COPS began by working through churches to organize San Antonio's desperately poor Latino population. The group successfully pushed for municipal investments in storm sewers, parks, and schools in the town's long-neglected barrios, and got major downtown businesses to hire their residents. COPS eventually secured over a billion dollars of public and private resources for their community through a combination of grassroots organizing and innovative protests. During one series of protests, lines of COPS members endlessly exchanged pennies to tie up traffic at local banks, and sympathetic nuns tried on bridal gowns at local department stores to put pressure on their staff. But Virginia had paid them little heed.
So it was with some hesitation that she attended a COPS meeting at her church, Immaculate Conception, where she raised her hand and said, "I have this problem. This neighbor lady of mine died because it was cold and they wouldn't fix her house. I want someone to do something about it."
"What are you going to do about it?" the COPS organizer asked. But Virginia didn't know what to do. That was why she'd come to the meeting in the first place. "I thought you people were supposed to be able to help," she said, and walked out of the meeting in anger.
A few days later, a COPS organizer knocked on Virginia's door. She was a nun, which was the only reason Virginia let her in. "All I want to know is why you were so angry," asked the nun. Virginia was angry, she said, because she'd tried to help the old lady and failed. But that wasn't all. She also was upset because her kids weren't getting properly educated in school. Because she'd given up on her own education and dreams. Because she'd had to watch her father, whom she'd adored, be humiliated again and again by police and store owners when they drove from state to state to pick crops. She was upset because no one seemed to care about her community.
The nun didn't advise Virginia to do anything in particular. She just asked if they could talk again. When she returned she suggested Virginia hold a house meeting, to see if her neighbors had concerns as well.
Nine people came. Virginia had never conducted a meeting. Her stomach felt hollow and clenched. Her legs shook so much she almost fell over. But gradually people began to talk of their problems and experiences. Their neighborhood had been thrown together at the cheapest possible cost, built for workers at the nearby slaughterhouses, which were now closed down. It lacked sidewalks and adequate sewers. Most of the houses were crumbling. As she listened, Virginia realized that more was at stake than the sad death of a lonely widow; this was about the future of her community.
Convinced that the neighborhood hadn't received its share of public funds, Virginia and other COPS members painstakingly researched documents at city hall. And they were right: The city had built a street in a more affluent area with money actually earmarked to repair homes in their barrio. The next step--testifying before the city council--took even more courage. When Virginia walked to the podium to protest the diversion of funds, she was so nervous she forgot what she was going to say. "I didn't remember my speech. I barely remembered my name. Then I turned around, saw the sixty people who'd come with me, and realized I was just telling the story of our community. So I told it and we got our money back.
"It was hard to stand up to politicians and tell them what we wanted, because it's been imbedded in my mind to be nice to everybody. It seemed rude at first. But I began to understand the importance of holding people accountable for what they promise."
As they did with other newly energized community members, COPS trainers encouraged Virginia to continue learning, so as to make her involvement in social causes more effective. They helped her to reflect on each step she took in every campaign, and to acquire the skills to research, negotiate, articulate a point of view, analyze people's needs, and channel her anger. They also introduced Virginia to a new community of people who were similarly involved. One of these new colleagues, a sixty-eight-year-old widow, became her inspiration. "Even though she didn't know English and couldn't read or write," Virginia recalls, "she spoke out and stood up for her beliefs. She talked to other families. And she keep telling me, `Go back to school.' She always said, `You have to represent us.'"
Even with this support and inspiration, Virginia's journey into public life wasn't easy. She often prayed over whether her newfound path was right, asking God for guidance, "like what am I doing with these crazy people and where is it going to lead." Yet her involvement also strengthened her faith, giving new meaning to biblical lessons that had once seemed more remote and abstract. "Suddenly you read these stories about injustice from thousands of years ago," Virginia says, "and it seems like they're talking about today. You feel like you have a chance to be one of God's instruments, to do His work by helping your community. You feel closer to Him in the process."
Yet Virginia's choices still raised difficult tensions, particularly in her family. At first her husband was critical of her involvement, saying "That's not your role" and telling her she was neglecting her household. "My kids were mostly grown, but Hispanic women weren't supposed to do these things. It was hard for him to understand that I was becoming a totally different person--going out of the house, going to meetings, wanting to talk about the things I was doing. Then my mother would call every day and say, `This is not for you. What are you doing to your family?' It was like twenty-four-hour guilt. You're torn between your home and your desire to grow as a person. For a while I thought my family was going to break up."
Eventually, Virginia returned to school and acquired her GED. Then she enrolled at a community college. Studying for a college test--her first test in over forty years--Virginia was sitting with books spread across the kitchen table, and no supper ready, when her husband came home. He ran his finger over the furniture to show her the accumulated dust. "Look at this house!" he yelled. "It's going to ruin. You're not taking care of anything."
"I'm preparing my future," she responded, her voice trembling. "If you don't like it, that's too bad, because I'm going to do it."
She'd never talked to him that way, and he was shocked. "I'm sorry," Virginia said, "but this is a priority." It took her husband a long time to get used to her new attitude and concerns, "to realize," as Virginia says, "that I was going to keep on going to school and to my meetings." But he slowly accepted Virginia's transformation and even took pride in it. "I'd begun to think of myself as a person. I'm Virginia Ramirez, not just someone's wife, mother, or daughter. My husband realized I was getting involved for both of us."
College gave Virginia the credentials to secure a new job, training and supervising over three hundred volunteers who do health education outreach in low-income neighborhoods. During her fifteen years with COPS, she's moved up in the organization, first training people in her parish, then working with other local churches to develop their members' leadership skills as well. She's focused particularly on women like herself--working to inspire them, as others had spurred her to action. Using her own unexpected journey as an example, she's taught them to find their own voice and speak out for their communities, despite any doubts or hesitations they might have, and even over the initial resistance of their husbands. "At first all the men in the neighborhood said they had a lot of respect for me, `but just don't get my wife involved.' After a while they began to come around."
Virginia's also negotiated with the mayor and bank presidents on major community development projects, pressured local corporations for decent jobs, pulled together after-school literacy projects. "You should see our neighborhood now," she says. "It's just so pretty."
She realized how far she'd come when she went to Washington, D.C., to testify before the U.S. Senate on an innovative job-training program that she and other COPS members had helped develop. "I stood there getting an award from Clinton and Gore," she recalls. "I thought about how you can't do anything by yourself, but with other people you can change things. I also thought about how this process has changed me, developed potential I'd never have dreamed of. Fourteen years ago I was a stay-at-home mother. That was my world. Never in my wildest imagination could I have thought that I'd be here. Now I tell people I learned all my talents and confidence at the University of COPS. The people there found some spark in me. I never knew I had it."
Entire communities can similarly grow when challenged. When Cherokee leader Wilma Mankiller visited the impoverished three-hundred-family town of Bell, Oklahoma, she asked the residents what would most help improve things. She expected them to suggest projects that addressed alcoholism, unemployment, or kids dropping out of school. Instead people wanted something simpler, something most of us take for granted: a clean water supply connected to every house, so their kids wouldn't have to bathe in polluted streams or drink from a single spigot at the schoolhouse. Mankiller responded by challenging each family to lay a mile of pipe and also help with fund-raising and other tasks. Soon families were racing to complete their sections the fastest. Inspired by its own success, the formerly passive and demoralized community tackled other projects, such as building better housing and making an organized effort to preserve the Cherokee language and culture. The town became a model of hope. Just as COPS had called forth the "spark" of strength and vision in Virginia Ramirez, so Mankiller helped revive the collective spirit of Bell. She went on to be elected chief of the Cherokee nation.
Stretching the Soul
"Heart," "spark," "spirit"--whatever word we use for the mysterious force that animates us, its full potential cannot be realized in isolation. Indeed, according to developmental psychologists, individual growth is possible only through interaction with the human and natural world, and through experiences that challenge us. "Souls are like athletes," wrote the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, "that need opponents worthy of them if they are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers."
Many of us may already know the value of stretching our souls in personal life. We know the virtue of learning to voice our needs, fight for our choices, recover from psychological intimidation. This process may require acknowledging painful truths, withstanding conflict, standing firm on what seems like shaky ground. We may need to question familiar habits, overcome self-doubt, and begin to separate who we really are from the roles we've been taught. Jungian analysts like James Hillman would say that by taking these steps we reconnect with what the Greeks called the daimon , the "acorn" of character at the core of our being. The psychiatrist M. Scott Peck describes spiritual healing as "an ongoing process of becoming increasingly conscious."
We are slower to attempt such transformations in the public sphere. Self-assertion there requires us not only to modify our outlook and behavior but also to confront a bewildering and often disorienting maze of institutions and individuals, powers and principalities. So we stay silent in the face of actions we know are unwise or morally troubling. We keep our opinions to ourselves, because we doubt our voices will be heard, mistrust our right to speak, or fear the consequences if we do speak out. We feel we lack essential political skills. Like Virginia before she attended her first COPS meeting, we simply do not know we have it in us.
Yet coming out of one's cocoon in the public sphere is just as necessary to self-realization as it is in the private. I once told a young Puerto Rican activist about the notion, common among many of his fellow students, that they'd lose their identity by getting involved--find themselves "swallowed up" by the movements they joined. He laughed and said the reverse was true. "You learn things you never knew about yourself. You get pushed to your limits. You meet people who make you think and push you further. You don't lose your identity. You begin to find out who you really are. I feel sad for people who will never have this experience."
You begin to find out who you really are. The implication is clear enough: We become human only in the company of other human beings. And this involves both opening our hearts and giving voice to our deepest convictions. The biblical vision of shalom describes this process with its concept of "right relationships" with our fellow humans, and with all of God's creation. The turning point for the Buddha, writes James Hillman, came only "when he left his protected palace gardens to enter the street. There the sick, the dead, the poor, and the old drew his soul down into the question of how to live life in the world." As Hillman stresses, the Buddha became who he was precisely by leaving the cloistered life. A doctor I know works in a low-income clinic because, she says, "seeing the struggles of others helps me be true to myself. It helps me find out how people in very different circumstances live out their humanity." Community involvement, in other words, is the mirror that best reflects our individual choices, our strengths and weaknesses, our accomplishments and failures. It allows our lives to count for something.
The Costs of Silence
Twenty years after Harvard Law School hired him as its first full-time black professor, scholar and author Derrick Bell took an unpaid protest leave, refusing to teach until the school hired a minority woman. It was not a decision made in haste. Bell had long campaigned for diversification. But each time a new position opened, Harvard somehow could find not a single minority female candidate in the world who was worthy enough to hire. The school's resistance continued despite Bell's stand. After three years, he was forced to resign. His conscience had cost him a tenured job at the most prestigious law school in America.
Yet Bell didn't feel defeated. Quite the opposite. His public stance had preserved his core identity and integrity. "It is the determination to protect our sense of who we are," he writes, "that leads us to risk criticism, alienation, and serious loss while most others, similarly harmed, remain silent."
What Bell means is that silence is more costly than speaking out, because it requires the ultimate sacrifice--the erosion of our spirit. The toll we pay for stifling our emotions in personal life is fairly obvious. Swallowed words act like caustic acids, eating at our gut. If the condition persists and the sentiments are sufficiently intense, we grow numb, detached, dead to the world around us. When, however, we take steps to redress our private losses and sorrows, we often feel a renewed sense of strength and joy, of reconnecting with life.
A similar process occurs when we want to address public issues but stay silent. It takes energy to mute our voices while the environment is ravaged, greed runs rampant, and families sleep in the streets. It takes energy to distort our words and actions because we fear the consequences. It takes energy, in other words, to sustain what the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton calls "the broken connection," splitting our lives from our values. Like autistic children, we can blank out the voices of our fellow human beings, feeling overwhelmed. But if we do, we risk the decay of our humanity. When we shrink from the world, our souls shrink, too.
Social involvement reverses this process, releasing our choked-off energy, overcoming the psychic paralysis so many of us feel, reintegrating mind and heart, body and soul, so that we can speak in one voice--our own--and mean what we say. There's even a physical corollary to this integration. In The Healing Power of Doing Good , Allan Luks describes a variety of studies that confirm what he calls the "helper's high": People who volunteer in their communities experience significantly greater physical pleasure and well-being in the process of their work, a general sense of increased energy, and in some cases an easing of chronic pain. A recent Harvard School of Public Health study found that African Americans who challenged repeated discrimination had lower blood pressure than those who did not. So taking stands for what we believe may help us save more than our souls.
Philosopher Parker Palmer describes the resulting unleashing of truth, vision, and strength in the lives of people like Rosa Parks, Václav Havel, Nelson Mandela, and Dorothy Day, who've acted on their deepest beliefs. "These people," he wrote, "have understood that no punishment could be worse than the one we inflict on ourselves by living a divided life." And nothing could be more powerful than the decision to heal that rift, "to stop acting differently on the outside from what they knew to be true inside."
America's prevailing culture of cynicism insists that nothing we do can matter. It teaches us not to get involved in shaping the world we'll pass on to our children. It encourages us to leave such important decisions to others--whether they be corporate and government leaders, or social activists whose lifestyles seem impossibly selfless or foreign. Sadly, and ironically, in a country born of a democratic political revolution, to be American today is to be apolitical. Civic withdrawal has become our norm. To challenge this requires courage. It also requires creating a renewed definition of ourselves as citizens--something closer to the nation of active stakeholders that leaders like Thomas Jefferson had in mind.
The importance of citizens' direct participation in a democracy was expressed thousands of years ago, by the ancient Greeks. In fact, they used the word "idiot" for people incapable of involving themselves in civic life. Now, the very word "political" has become so debased in our culture that we use it to describe either trivial office power plays or the inherently corrupt world of elected leaders. We've lost sight of its original roots in the Greek notion of the polis': the democratic sphere in which citizens, acting in concert, determine the character and direction of their society. "All persons alike," wrote Aristotle, should share "in the government to the utmost."
Reclaiming this political voice requires more than just identifying problems, which itself can feed our sense of overload. I think of an Arthur Miller play, Broken Glass , whose heroine obsesses over Hitler. From the untroubled environs of Brooklyn, she reads newspaper articles about Kristallnacht : synagogues smashed and looted; old men forced to scrub streets with toothbrushes while storm troopers laugh at them; and finally, children shipped off to the camps in cattle cars. Her concern contrasts with the approach of her family and friends, who insist, despite the mounting evidence, that such horrors are exaggerated. Yet she does nothing to address the situation publicly, except to grow more anxious. Eventually she becomes psychosomatically paralyzed.
The approach Miller's protagonist takes toward the horrors of Nazism resembles the condition psychologist Martin Seligman calls learned helplessness. People who suffer from severe depression, he found, do so less as a result of particular unpleasant experiences than because of their "explanatory style"--the story they tell themselves about how the world works. Depressed people have become convinced that the causes of their difficulties are permanent and pervasive, inextricably linked to their personal failings. There's nothing to be done because nothing can be done. This master narrative of their lives excuses inaction; it provides a rationale for remaining helpless. In contrast, individuals who function with high effectiveness tend to believe that the problems they face result from factors that are specific and temporary, and therefore changeable. The story they live by empowers them.
This is not to say that change is easy, nor that everyone is in an equal position to bring it about. Some individuals and groups in America possess far more material and organizational resources than others. This reflects our deep social and economic inequities. But as social theorist and Tikkun magazine founder Michael Lerner has observed, we often fail to use the resources we do have, which may be of a different kind. "Most of us," Lerner says, "have been subjected to a set of experiences in our childhood and adult lives that makes us feel that we do not deserve to have power." Consequently, we can't imagine changing the direction of our society. We decide that things are worse than they actually are--a condition Lerner refers to as "surplus powerlessness." Think again of Virginia Ramirez's accomplishments, when she joined forces with other once-powerless people in fighting for their community.
The illusion of powerlessness can just as easily afflict the fortunate among us. I know many people who are confident and successful in their work and have loving personal relationships, yet can hardly conceive of trying to work toward a more humane society. Materially comfortable and professionally accomplished, they could make important social contributions. Instead they restrict their search for meaning and integrity to their personal lives. Their sense of shared fate extends only to their immediate families and friends. Despite their many advantages, they, too, have been taught an "explanatory style" that precludes participation in public life, except to promote the most narrow self-interest.
Whatever our situations, we all face a choice. We can ignore the problems that lie just beyond our front doors; we can allow decisions to be made in our name that lead to a meaner and more desperate world. We can yell at the TV newscasters and complain about how bad things are, using our bitterness as a hedge against involvement. Or we can work, as well as we can, to shape a more generous common future.
The Meaning of Integrity
Paradoxically, one effect of overcoming learned helplessness is recognizing the extent to which others have helped us, and the extent to which our lives are bound together. Despite the myth of the rugged individualist, none of our lives is entirely of our own making. Small wonder, then, that those who participate in public life talk so much about the need to repay the blessings they've received. For some, this stems from a specific sense of good fortune, of living in comfort while others are hungry and desperate. But I've heard the same sentiment expressed by people from the poorest of surroundings, recalling key friends, relatives, or mentors who offered them inspiration, hope, or a helping hand. As Marian Wright Edelman writes, social involvement may simply be "the rent we pay for living."
Often this rent turns into a down payment on a new and more powerful sense of ourselves. Take the case of massage therapist Corrine Kelly, who participated in a series of New Age self-actualization groups because, she says, she felt that it's important for everyone to "pay attention to their muscles, their breath, and their emotions. I like seeing them reconnect with their bodies. That's why I went into massage." But sadly, she found the New Age emphasis on one's own internal healing to the exclusion of other concerns "just fostered personal aggrandizement, like all people wanted to do was get their own lives perfect and not worry about anyone else." When Corrine read the paper or watched the TV news she "found it very depressing, even though I was doing okay professionally and economically. I cared and wanted to help, but just didn't know how to act. There's a process of dying that happens when you shut yourself off to the inequalities and injustices in front of you. I felt I was living happily in my own small nucleus while the rest of the world decayed around me."
Corrine began attending a local Unitarian church, "because I wanted a spiritual base. They combined different traditions, and their members seemed to really live their beliefs. I was raised in the Pentecostal tradition. There's a lot from that I've let go of, like the more intolerant judgments. But there are lots of themes that really touched me, like the importance of love and compassion."
Corrine's new Unitarian minister spoke powerfully to these same themes, "calling forth the basic sense of caring I grew up with." The congregation continually linked personal spiritual development and visions of social justice. Through a church committee, Corrine joined a grassroots network, Promise the Children, whose members tutored kids, educated voters, and spoke out for children's access to decent education, housing, and health care. She got involved slowly at first, then ended up on the network's statewide board.
Corrine still took pride in her massage work, "because personal and social healing should be parallel, and I like helping to heal people." Her political efforts drew on her self-help group experience, "like trying to create win-win situations and encouraging people to listen to their bodies. But I felt more empowered, with less of a sense of despair about everything that's wrong. At one point I looked up all the different meanings of the word `integrity.' It's more than just being honest. It has something to do with the wholeness and interconnectedness of the world, and how essential it is to being human. My spiritual path shouldn't just be about me as an individual. It should be about what I give back to the community."
By expanding her definition of healing, Corrine described the powerful effects of working shoulder to shoulder with others for a greater common good. We see this phenomenon in other contexts all the time. People become inspired and expansive when they pull together to face a storm, flooded river, or other natural disaster. Though the U.S. armed forces have often fought for problematic causes, a similar feeling makes soldiers look back to their war experiences as a time of profound meaning and unparalleled camaraderie.
Rarely does social involvement place us in the path of destructive natural forces or armed opponents, but it does involve risk. At the very least, it requires us to make ourselves psychologically vulnerable. It impels us to overcome distracting habits and petty concerns, to challenge internal fears, and to face criticism from those who will call our efforts fruitless, foolish, or a waste of scarce time.
In return, social involvement converts us from detached spectators into active participants. We develop new competencies and strengths. We form strong bonds with coworkers of courage and vision. Our lives become charged with purpose. Yvon Chouinard, the founder of the Patagonia outdoor clothing company, once told me about the challenges he faced while mountaineering, surfing, and building a successful corporation. By the tone of his voice, he communicated the sense of accomplishment these activities had given him. But his enthusiasm grew even stronger when he described helping organize Japanese surfers to clean up their beaches and switching Patagonia's buying patterns to phase out environmentally destructive nonorganic cottons. Chouinard's participation in environmental activism was even more deeply gratifying than his corporate success, because it produced results well beyond what he could achieve personally.
Whatever propels us beyond the merely personal--be it awe at the power and mystery of nature, religious belief, outrage at the sight of another person suffering, or simply a sense that we can do better than we have--we each need to take that all-important step of bringing our private convictions into the larger public arena. Because that's where we'll find our common humanity. As my friend the fisherman Pete Knutson says, "You get a lot back when you're with a good group of people taking a stand on something that matters."
Again and again, I've seen people transformed when they begin to voice their beliefs. "One day during Pride Week," said a gay student from Penn State, "I wore my `Love knows no gender' T-shirt all around campus. I never had so much bounce in my legs. I felt wonderful and proud to be gay. I was full of positive energy. I was happy and people were looking at me like `What is that?' I didn't even feel nervous--it was unbelievable."
Religious traditions stress the importance of listening to the spirit within, to guide our personal choices. This same voice can guide our public action. In fact, the connection between soul and acting rightly in the world lies at the core of these traditions. The ancient Jews spoke of ruah , the spark of life or breath of God, which gave insight, understanding, and physical sustenance. The obligation to love others and love God was the essence of right living, they said, of being truly human, as opposed to pursuing false gods and living a life of estrangement. As Thomas Moore writes, soul "is not a thing, but a quality or a dimension of experiencing life and ourselves. It has to do with depth, value, relatedness, heart, and personal substance." In other words, we achieve redemption through engagement, not isolation. The more we exercise compassion for our fellow human beings, the closer we get to God.
Whether we frame the world in religious or secular terms, we don't have to be passive creatures of our circumstances, condemned to watch from the sidelines. The psychologist Jean Houston urges us to overcome detachment and ineffectiveness by joining "local life to great life." Cornel West talks of redeeming "life's epic significance." And we do both when, like Corrine Kelly, we extend the caring and generosity that characterize healthy intimate relationships to a larger social domain.
Mary Oliver describes the resulting gain in her poem "When Death Comes":
When it's over, I don't want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.
Oliver's images go to the heart of the matter. Will we remain mere visitors, planetary tourists? Or will we recognize that the earth is our home, and that we'll create its future with our fellow inhabitants? Only by choosing the latter course will we realize, in the words of a young Atlanta activist, Sonya Vetra Tinsley, "that you can shape the world as much as it shapes you."
Holding to the Difficult
Social involvement isn't Candyland. I won't pretend that successes come easily and instantly. It often feels hard just to raise public issues. Unless our acquaintances, colleagues, or friends already define themselves as socially involved, it's awkward to ask them to act or even care about homelessness, global warming, or Bosnia. It feels as if we're intruding on their private liberty, their right to be left alone by the claims and the afflictions of the world. Our culture makes us feel that raising our beliefs in public is like parading some disreputable personal passion. "Are you talking about politics again?" our acquaintances may moan, as if the whole subject is just too strange to mention.
The more we challenge institutional power, the more heat we'll take. As Sister Helen Prejean writes in Dead Man Walking , her memoir of working with death-row inmates, "Get involved with poor people, and controversy follows you like a hungry dog." When Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged the Vietnam War, he found himself attacked by The New York Times, The Washington Post , even the NAACP. "Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence," wrote the Post . "He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people."
Participation in public life often requires us to confront greed and bigotry, blindness and shortsightedness, and the will to dominion that theologians call evil. Taking on larger causes sets us up for repeated heartbreak, and for feeling angry and frustrated when people spurn the most basic appeals to human solidarity. Like any true path of psychological or spiritual inquiry, social involvement invites us to confront issues and forces we'd just as soon leave undisturbed. It sometimes brings us face to face with more cruelty and suffering than we ever thought possible.
Yet even the hardships teach valuable lessons. Someone once asked the Dalai Lama how he responded to the continued brutal occupation of his country by the Chinese. "Because of the difficult situation," he explained, "this Dalai Lama became more realistic, closer to reality. If things are good, it's easy to pretend. When things become desperate, we cannot pretend. We have to accept the reality." The poet Rainer Maria Rilke explained: "We must always hold to the difficult; then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful."
I Enjoyed That Day
As Rilke and the Dalai Lama suggest, satisfaction can be found even amid the most testing of situations. Muhammad Ali recalls how good it felt to decide finally to resist the Vietnam-era draft. He lost his boxing championship title, was publicly reviled, and was sentenced to five years in prison (though the sentence was finally overturned on a technicality). If he quietly submitted, Ali was assured, he'd never face combat. But he could not live with supporting a war he felt was morally wrong and "leading more boys to death."
"That day in Houston in '67 when I went to the induction center, I felt happy," he says, "because people didn't think I had the nerve to buck the draft board of the government. And I almost ran there, hurried.... The world was watching, the blacks mainly, looking to see if I had the nerve to buck Uncle Sam, and I just couldn't wait for the man to call my name, so I wouldn't step forward. I enjoyed that day."
In Revolution from Within , Gloria Steinem describes a test of her own spirit. Steinem grew up in East Toledo, Ohio, the poor side of town. At a Toledo women's conference where she was speaking years later, she met contemporaries from her working-class high school; gutsy, highly vocal women who'd brought sex discrimination suits in their factory jobs, organized battered women's programs, and defeated an antiabortion ordinance in their heavily Catholic communities.
As always, Steinem was a political lightning rod. During a local TV interview, she described some of the women's stories that she'd heard. A man called in to denounce the conference as "antifamily" and Steinem in particular as "a slut from East Toledo." When she was growing up, the label would have devastated her. Instead, Steinem and the other women laughed. They turned an apparent insult into a tribute to their hard-won independence, their willingness to challenge prescribed roles and rules, and the sense of solidarity they'd built. "As we toasted each other as `the sluts from East Toledo' with coffee and beer after the interview, I thought: Not a bad thing to be. Maybe I'll put it on my tombstone."