I spent many years as a community activist working on social justice and environmental issues. Part of that work included writing a column for a local newspaper.
One of these columns appears below, which addresses the difficulty of persevering during difficult times. The current economic uncertainty, recent tragic shootings, and natural disasters, all coming around the holiday season, are so challenging. What renews us and keeps us going? How do we continue trying save a world that seems in constant crisis?
SPIRITUAL RENEWAL FOR ACTIVISTS
On a cold, rainy winter afternoon we gathered in front of the grocery store where I formerly did my shopping.
Along with others in the community, I had come to support the striking grocery workers in their long dark hours, struggling to preserve their livelihood and health care, their homes and the welfare of their families.
Forming a circle of solidarity, we marched and chanted slogans to raise our spirits and strengthen our wills.
As we walked I watched moving across the faces of those who marched a heart-wrenching mixture of emotions: weariness from the long weeks of vigil, determination not to give in and give up, hope that new negotiations would end the strike, fear that all their effort might come to nothing.
I couldn’t help wondering, what keeps them coming back here day after day, week after week, month after month? What sustains them in their struggle?
They aren’t the only ones battling against formidable odds. Scattered across the country so many people are fighting their own Goliaths of greed, corruption, prejudice, indifference, apathy, despair.
How do we keep going, day after day, year after year, in our quest to help the homeless, feed the hungry, protect the weak, end the violence, preserve the environment, keep the peace?
When the obstacles seem so overwhelming, the task so huge, the progress so slow, what keeps us going? What feeds our strength, nourishes our vision, renews our will? What sustains us in our work?
Recently our family watched The Return of the King, the final film in Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring series.
What I saw depicted on the screen echoed in heroic and epic dimensions what I see happening all over the world, as well as throughout our own small community: small bands of people of conscience with courage and commitment, loyalty and love, strength and humility, taking up the gauntlet of what seems an insurmountable challenge, willing to sacrifice personal gain, comfort, and safety in the struggle to promote the common good.
William F. Schulz, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, once wrote:
“I think we who work for justice and come face to face regularly with its negation are at risk of losing that which animates all healthy beings: the capacity to respond to the graciousness draping the world in colors vivid and electric, the warmth of the sun, a lover’s touch. If we neglect to notice these, why attend to anything else? E. B. White said, ‘Every morning I awake torn between a desire to save the world and an inclination to savor it. This makes it hard to plan the day.’ But if we forget to savor the world, what possible reason do we have for saving it? In a way, the savoring must come first.”
Perhaps in the end, our struggle is not so much about trying to save someone or something, as about savoring what is good and beautiful in each individual, in the world around us, and in our selves.
Even in the Tolkien film, what causes us to champion the warriors of the Middle Earth is the sense that there is something precious and noble in the world of men and hobbits worth the saving and the savoring. When all seemed lost and doomed, what kept these warriors moving forward was returning again and again to that sense of savoring what must not be lost.
In teaching composition, we sometimes talk about the recursiveness of writing–how we must return again and again to what inspired us to write in the first place in order to persist in the difficult task of writing. Often what inspires us to write is not a fully fleshed idea, but something nebulous and fuzzy, a “felt-sense” of what we want to express, something important, even urgent, yet not clearly seen or understood. During the writing process, we return again and again to that “felt sense” to clarify and strengthen our ideas. Without this felt-sense, we sometimes flounder, run adrift, lose interest, or give up.
As activists in promoting positive change, we are in a sense in the process of rewriting the world. To persist in our work, we must return again and again to that “felt-sense” of what inspires us. Within the desire to save the world is the felt-sense that, despite all our faults and failures, there is something beautiful and good in the world, in humanity, in each and every one of us, worth the saving because worth the savoring.
The savoring not only comes first, but the savoring is what sustains us.
Adapted from the essay “Spiritual Renewal for Activists” by Deborah J. Brasket, first printed in the Santa Maria Times, January 9, 2004.