I’ve heard it said that the journey of a million miles begins with one step…
If I could have told myself that, and understood it truly, a few years ago. In our youth, hubris, zeal and impatience I think we’ve all hastened change, hastened the results without the patience for the means it takes to get there. When I think about the civil rights movement I think of how it started before the civil war, and is still going on today in the form of our very own gay marriage debate. When I think about Gandhi and the people of India striving to be free, I think of the lifetime of that man spent patiently taking step by step, step by step towards the liberation of that country, and the struggle still goes on today as millions of people struggle for the rights they are guaranteed that have yet to be actualized. How long did Nelson Mandela sit in prison, patiently making friends with his keepers, before he became the president of his country?
One of the reason these figures are so powerful in our minds is that they seemed to have such mastery over this process and it’s timescale. There was never a willingness to forgo what they felt was right for the sake of expediency. They moved with such power, conviction, loyalty, single-mindedness, and patience that they truly seemed to be in complete control. One step, one step, one step, we are going to get there some day. And indeed we have accomplished much along the way. It’s interesting to think how critical a role Martin Luther King played in the world, yet he didn’t live to see the success of his movement, the movement we so deeply associate him with. He gave his life for changes he never saw take place all the while knowing that they would. I don’t believe he doubted for a second that the changes he was striving for would come. He knew he might not live to see them, but he was willing all the same.
There was a time when I wore myself down with anger and frustration about all the injustice, perhaps I felt that to feel something so strongly had to be powerful, had to do..something. But having been paralyzed with the overwhelming reality of all that is not right yet, and having been so burned on not being able to will change by virtue of passionately pointing out injustice it turned out that, well …a whole lot of good that did no one… All that burning for a perfection that I will never see, never see save the imperfect peace to be found in this very moment…this moment..this moment.
I live and strive all the while knowing I’ll not see the end result of my efforts and I am okay with that in a very deep way now. After the realization that it doesn’t make me a better person to rage around about injustices, I started thinking hard about the world I DO want to live in and have since been endeavoring to go forward living and creating that vision. I think that it is absolutely possible to care deeply for justice, peace, and other noble truths without being destroyed by the imperfection of our struggle, the inadequacy of our means, and the reality that what we dream of may never arrive in the form we envision. Indeed, it is a paradox I have grown to love; that we can have a vision of a beautiful future and still love the present with all of our hearts. This is still the most engaging and important conversation and endeavor that I engage in.
The arc of history is long, much longer than our individual lifetimes, but it leans towards justice because justice is the expression of the human sense of truth and rightness, justice is the manifestation of a recognition of our oneness, justice is how love seeks to be manifested and for it we are compelled to employ our courage and have the willingness to sacrifice. After the fires and wars and storms, after our experiments with destruction, justice is the home that we most deeply desire to return to. We certainly don’t all arrive there safely or at all. But the yearning of the heart is for justice, and that yearning is a home of sorts in itself.
My neighbor drove me into San Francisco today which meant that I got walk to work along unfamiliar networks of streets past the hard angled giants, the buildings of all different shades of stone and glass and brick and metal. They’re all rising for today, falling in my mind not so long from now. The feeling of breezy impermanence filled me. I imagined fog banks moving through lobbies and people drifting out into the streets wandering off in search of their freedom.
I find a joy in looking around at the life going on, through its mundane machinations and little happenings that no one notices. Spoken like secrets in the ears of those who slow down, there are birds circling through in wide swoops above, the man at the flower stand is smelling his own flowers with eyes closed for a second and a flicker of a smile at the sensory landscape, or the kindness of a momentary apology on the street. Work men carried ladders and buckets out of the backs of their trucks, joked in the morning air with cups of coffee and splattered clothes, so perfectly here in this strange environment- at peace in their momentary homes. The sun broke through the perfectly solid San Francisco gray, a pale yellowish orb framed between two buildings, it shown on the columned US customs-house, two security guys standing on the steps gesturing to each other, their voices lost across the street and the traffic, but bathed in that slight bath of sunshine at 10:13 am Wednesday…
There were all these people in suits, and warm coats, some people were hustling, all these people are playing the part they think is good, is right, is noble and respectable, or at least just trying to do the work of staying alive. So many beautiful human expressions…confusion, terseness, humor, methodical movement, laughter, interest and curiosity, pensiveness, the expressions of people in their work identities. Later they’ll laugh with friends at a bar, yell at their partner, and have a different range of expressions. For now, them + me, we’re rushing, looking back and forth and striding forth into the street, looking down, up, across, and into small devices where sometimes during the day it may seem that our friends and families live.
I like to walk through these spaces remembering that these buildings aren’t permanent, and everything falls, grows, dies, changes. I feel the wind blowing over this land, or over the water that will cover this city, when these building are falling apart and then finally, gone.
These structures are representative of institutions, and they feel so large and impersonal when seen in that powerful dominating light…but when I look at these buildings I see the frailty of human illusion, the uniquely human fallacy that we could possibly make power permanently embodied in a business, a government, a building.
Could there be more power in these buildings made of dust and returning to dust than there is in the eternal life-force flowing through each of us? A flow that has found ever new outlets, always evolving new ideas of beauty, vitality and endurance? No. That force still flows through us, and it is far more powerful than any of the places we choose to chain ourselves and our spirits to, regardless of whether we forget that holy holy truth. How funny to feel small amidst such facades when there is such greatness inside each of us, a greatness that dwarfs the largest building and the mightiest institutions. Travel to any number of ruins of past civilizations, mighty though they may have been, how it all falls.
Anyway, some people burn out beholding humanity’s problems, some people seem to disengage completely from the broader community we are a part of, unwilling to see or deal with the injustice, and just as unwilling to strive for justice, beauty, and goodness. Some people acquiesce. They create ways of seeing injustice as making sense in some way, as though everything works in a just way and when injustice exists the person or people must have done something to deserve it. It is interesting to me the ways we create stories, apply logic, and try to understand the world…the ways we perceive patterns, or refuse to notice patterns, seek meaning, and seek sense in the senseless. It’s all so beautifully human, such desire for safety, for feeling like we have say over our destiny, or that we can avoid misfortune by patterning our actions in certain ways. We play with power, powerlessness, wishing we could save ourselves and our loved ones from any suffering. It’s all so…full of love and fear, frailty.
But beyond the certain dehumanization that goes along with burning ourselves into cynical grinches or choosing to not care (which dissolves a part of our humanity), there are infinite ways to be in this world fully. We each have an in between, we each have a way to make our own lives meaningful in these struggles for progress and hope, without being swallowed by the enormity of it all. We each can find a balance by creating our own style of engagement. Like all that we do, when we choose our battles because they call to us in our hearts we can generate the energy we need to engage in that work.
I for one don’t sign petitions on the street or online anymore. I find the language to be alarmist and it drains me to even engage with. Even when an action I’ve participated in in this way succeeds I feel little satisfaction.
But…I volunteer for a community garden that is being put in near where I live. It feels good to participate in actions that are creating a different way of living, making a tangible impact in my community, and providing opportunities for people to experience themselves in positive ways. A garden brings opportunities to be a part of a community, to plant living things, and to develop a connection to healthy food, all experiences that can be transformative for people and that I feel are antidotes to the ills of this “modern” world. They are certainly my antidotes to the “modern” world.
Howard Thurman, a great Ameriican leader and something of a father figure to Martin Luther King Jr. said “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
So what makes me come alive?…beautiful kindness, so I’m nice to people, cuiosity and truth, so I challenge my assumptions openly, authentic emotion, so I cry and laugh in public, I love to write about and muse on my own internal machinations and hope that other people feel empowered to engage in the same way, or to love themselves exactly how they are. I am working towards a field that makes me feel alive and I hope to bring my passion and insight into the world to create value there some day, I sing because I love to sing, I spend time outside loving and appreciating nature, I am spending time learning about myself so that I bring myself more fully to whatever I feel called to do. I suppose none of these fit normal categories of activism, but for me what makes me come alive, is trying to live my ideals as fully as I can, to integrate my activism and my beliefs into my reality. So that’s what I do. And I drive the poor petitioners crazy. Sorry about that. Oh yeah, and I buy 90% of my food from the farmer’s market in order to support local sustainable economy. I also shop at the farmer’s market because I get to watch babies run around and musicians serenade grumpy and happy farmers. But whatever makes us feel truly alive and connected to the source of greatness inside, that is where all greatness in the world has come from. From great love comes great things, not from great obligation, guilt, or fear.
We each find what makes us come alive, and courageously do it.
What makes you come alive?