changing the world through radical patience

Social and environmental activism requires a clear understanding of key issues, a keen sense of rhythm, and above all, radical patience.

Social and environmental activism requires a clear understanding of key issues, a keen sense of rhythm, and above all, radical patience.

Activists rouse a following for their cause by learning how to deliver their message with an elemental softness. In fact, to borrow a phrase from a dear friend of mine, we have to begin building agendas that are chock-full of ‘soft turns and surprises.’

Why so?

No other reason than this is how the universe was born, how it works. Ignoring Hollywood’s proclivity to portray the ‘beginning’ as a big bang, it was really no more than an imperceptible series of minute movements as graceful as are swans, as unpredictable and fleeting as moments of remembering.

In an effort to mesh our earnest and inherited desire to save the planet or eliminate poverty or end racial and economic injustice, we had best learn the songs and memorize the dance steps the Earth enjoys. For this music and these rhythms are ours as well.

Activists can only grapple with the chaos unleashed by a rapidly changing climate or confront the incalculable pain of war and famine by first creating a climate for change. And the only healthful and sure way of doing this is by beginning small.

We (my commitment to environmental and social change dates to 1968) need to take time for reflection, learn to sing our words and dance our actions. We must conspire — breathe together. And in the end we must finish smaller still.

This climate of change begins by acknowledging the contributions we can all make toward finding meaningful solutions.

The problems we now face appear monumental. They are not. Efforts toward solving them seem negligible. They are not.

Margaret Mead wisely called our attention to one ennobling truth: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”

This climate of change ends with the realization that true activism is lifelong work, not a hit and miss enterprise. The planet will continue to heat up, poverty will continue to increase, war and injustice will rage on in direct proportion to the number of concerned and dedicated activists that burn out.

As pressure continues to build on our environment and as our social and economic ills mount, pressure also builds on those of us willing to do something about them.

If we fail to go about this wisely we will fall short of our expectations. We may suffer depression and feelings of hopelessness, anger and frustration.

The race we have chosen to run is a long one. Reaching the finish line will take great strategy and endless patience.

One way to work effectively in creating a climate of change is to find, in T.S. Eliot’s words, “a still point in a turning world.”

We find the still point only through deep reflection on who we are and what we want.

Make no mistake here. Some activists seem born into the vocation. Others grow. All of us have to work hard to stay in it.

Christian social activist Jim Wallis notes: “Action without reflection can easily become barren and even bitter. That without the space for self-examination and the capacity for rejuvenation, the danger of exhaustion and despair is too great.”

Our long-term commitment to living alongside planet Earth comes easier, lasts longer if it is measured.

Ysaye Barnwell, of the singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock, compared political activism to making music: “Music has its rhythm and pace. You have to keep up with it and not go too slow or too fast, or the song won’t work.

“You need to take all the time you need. You want to breathe, savor each note, feel the spaces between the words that you sing.”

Another necessary component in the activist’s tool kit is the willingness to practise radical patience, and to do so day after day.

In contract to nature’s slow, subtle and self-organizing processes we often insist in burning rubber.

We have tried to convince ourselves, wrongly we now know, that by moving faster and faster we can overcome all obstacles.

If truth was known however, we will only figure out how to save the planet and sustain those of us who live here by going slow.

By practising patience that is far-reaching, but within reach.

One of my heroes in the early 1970s was author Robert Pirsig. One of his first acts of great patience was clearly his determination to publish his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Pirsig faced rejections from 121 publishing houses before he was finally published in 1974.

His work is full of wonderful tidbits we can use in our search for nourishment and strength. He reminds us that the route to success is difficult for sure. It need not be dreadful nor death defying however.

“Mountains,” he writes, “should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. When you are no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself.

“To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow.”

There is a gentle side to being an activist we often overlook. In our panic to confront or to convert we often pull folks along at a pace they are unwilling or unable to go. That won’t work. It’s not how we are built.

It is the soft turns and surprises of daily consciousness that will guarantee the future of songbirds and seal pups, of polar bears and wolves, of oceans, and of our children.

Our successes and failures should be counted like beats and measures in a great and enduring song.

Go at it, but go only where things grow.