When I grew up in San Francisco and then went to school at U.C. Davis during the sixties and early seventies, social activism (anti-war, anti-nuke, feminism, ecology, universal healthcare) was part of the fabric of my life. But I remember my discomfort sitting around the table strategizing with my comrades, using the vocabulary and tactics of war. We pumped ourselves up for political “fights” and strategized about how to “trounce the enemy,” often late at night with alcohol infused adrenaline. In other words, we were brainwashing ourselves the way soldiers are brainwashed--to think of ourselves as good, noble, and just and to think of anyone who thought differently as evil and unenlightened. We would bring enlightenment to them, of course, through our rhetoric, our righteous indignation, and the purity of our beliefs.
As much as I believed in the causes I worked so hard for--and still do believe in them--something was wrong with this picture, as they say. Something was missing for me. Never much of a drinker and lacking the natural bravado or self-assuredness of my fellow progressives, I felt different and slowly, almost invisibly, extricated myself from their midst. I felt ashamed of myself for abandoning them and the causes but, because I couldn’t name what my discomfort was, I assumed it was something in me that was lacking. No longer on the front lines, I continued to support causes by quietly writing checks.
I’ve had 25 years to consider my actions and inactions and where I fit into social and political action today. I’ve uncovered what was missing for me: the awareness that we are interconnected, that my worst enemy is not another person but my own self-judging thoughts, and that black and white/good and bad are artificial divisions that are useless when trying to solve problems.
I see it every day in my coaching practice: A couple or a father and daughter come in, each in so much pain that they feel hopeless. In their hopelessness, instead of becoming more vulnerable, they become immobilized, each solidifying their arguments and positions, pushing away the one person they most want to be loved by.
Perhaps this is what we do more globally. Fueled by religious rhetoric that warns us of an impending apocalypse and by scientists reiterating that we are on the precipice of an irreversible global disaster in the form of global warming, we despair. This despair immobilizes and polarizes us.
So what can I do to get out of fear and hopelessness--out of endurance--and possibly make a difference in a way that is consistent with compassionate action? Today, I read a prayer by the Dalai Lama: “As long as space endures, and for as long as living beings remain, until then may I too abide, to dispel the misery of the world.” Today, I will repeat this prayer over and over as a reminder to keep my focus on dispelling misery, not creating more through my self-judgment, hopelessness, or defensiveness. Today, when I get angry at my government officials or terrorists or child molesters, I will try to move through righteous indignation to compassion for the misery of both the vanquishers and the vanquished. Today, I will seek more avenues for expressing this compassion, along with hope, joy, and love. The world has given me so much; I owe it this in return.
Causes Jane Straus Supports
International Rescue Committee
The Southern Poverty Law Center
The Nature Conservancy