It is a marvelous thing, the malleability of the human soul. Healing, growth, and the capacity for joy are available to all of us, no matter how old we are or how oppressed or unhappy we have been. Some of the best activists are people who have suffered tremendous loss, wounding or oppression, then cultivated within themselves the vision and strength to emerge from that dark place and help others. Remember that, and don’t ever set a limit on what you or anyone else can achieve.
Human societies are also malleable, and have the capacity to grow and heal. As discussed earlier, it took little more than a hundred years for slavery to go from being an accepted practice throughout much of the world to being outlawed throughout the world. It is an evil that continues to be fought to this day, in Sudan and elsewhere, but no society claims that it is legally or morally defensible to own slaves, the way many societies did as recently as 150 years ago.
Remember, always, that “in dreams begin responsibilities.” Dream boldly; then act responsibly to make your dream a reality. Remember, also, to “be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Manage your mission, time, fears and relationships.
Devote yourself whole-heartedly to your self-actualization, and never feel guilty for doing so. And never, ever blame, shame or criticize yourself or others: these behaviors accomplish nothing and are, in fact, undermining. Focus on your strengths and achievements, be a compassionate observer of your weaknesses and mistakes—and then go out and do the same for others.
Surround yourself with a supportive community and stay away from people who put you down, no matter how well-meaning they say their intentions are, or how close you’ve been to them in the past.
Strive to treat everyone you encounter with empathy, respect, compassion and love. Strive, especially, to treat conservatives that way. Don’t dismiss them as intellectual or moral lightweights, but listen carefully to what they are saying and their reasons for thinking the way they do: first, because in doing so you will gain a better grasp of their reasoning—and, hence, be better equipped to counter it—and second, because sometimes the conservatives are actually right. Remember, also, that often when conservatives are wrong, they are wrong for innocent reasons. Also keep in mind that the world is complex enough that often progressives and conservatives will each be right, and wrong, about different aspects of the same problem.
Above all, don’t worry about whether you are destined to make a monumental contribution such as Gloria Steinem’s or only a smaller one. As the brilliant English novelist George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch, a novel whose main character, Dorothea, is an activist, the smaller contributions are vitally important. Here is Eliot’s description of the impact of Dorothea’s life:
Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Don’t worry too much about the big picture; just keep doing your work, and doing it as joyfully as possible.
The last few years have been difficult for American progressives, but the truth is that, while we may have been losing elections, we have been winning the far more important values war. David Brooks, in his book Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), documents the ongoing blending of “bourgeois” and “bohemian” culture in the United States. (“Bobo” is a contraction of “bourgeois bohemian.”) What he’s really saying is that even the most conservative (i.e., bourgeois) communities are embracing progressive (i.e., bohemian) values. He’s also saying, of course, that bohemian communities are embracing bourgeois values, but in my view that’s a much less meaningful “win,” since progressives have always had to coexist with capitalism.
Brooks, a self-described conservative, even admits to being a Bobo himself:
Let me say first, I’m a member of this class. . . . We’re not so bad. All societies have elites, and our educated elite is a lot more enlightened than some of the older elites, which were based on blood or wealth or military valor. Wherever we educated elites settle, we make life more interesting, diverse and edifying. . . . On balance I emerge as a defender of the Bobo culture.
Public policy expert Richard Florida documents a similar trend, which he calls the “Big Morph,” in his book, The Rise of the Creative Class . . . And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 2002). “At the heart of the Big Morph is a new resolution of the centuries-old tension between two value systems: the Protestant work ethic and the bohemian ethic.” Florida is very clear that this is a permanent and radical change in the American psyche:
The great cultural legacy of the sixties, as it turned out, was not Woodstock after all, but something that had evolved at the other end of the continent. It was Silicon Valley. This place in the very heart of the San Francisco Bay area became the proving ground for the new ethos of creativity. If work could be made more aesthetic and experiential; if it could be spiritual and “useful” in the poetic sense rather than in the duty-bound sense; if the organizational strictures and rigidity of the old system could be transcended and if bohemian values like individuality—which also happens to be tried-and-true all-American value—could be brought to the workplace, then we could move beyond the old categories. And though the Valley itself has now mushroomed into something quite different than it was, the ethos that it pioneered has spread and endured, and continues to permeate our society. (Emphasis added.)
As our final example, see Rod Dreher’s book Crunchy Cons, which extols for his conservative audience the virtues of (among other good things) organic food, environmental stewardship, anti-consumerism, anti-corporatism, local economies, and—yes—even granola and Birkenstocks. “It is impossible to be truly conservative nowadays without being consciously countercultural,” he writes.
The truth is, this drive toward freedom, individuality and other progressive values is bigger than all of us. As the World Values Surveys demonstrate, it’s even bigger than American culture and society itself. It is, in fact, the “arc” that Martin Luther King, Jr., famously referred to when he said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Note that King wasn’t just talking about America or civil rights: he was talking about the universe and all social justice movements everywhere. He could do that because his arc derives from the universal and powerful hunger all humans have for freedom, love, esteem and self-actualization. It is the inevitability of that arc, and the consequent inevitable triumph of progressive values, that, more than anything else, may be driving the Far Right to such hateful extremes. The Right knows that its survivalist, strict father values will be left in the dust as societies around the globe become more prosperous and enlightened.
In a kind of desperate last stand, arch-conservatives around the world are doing their best to foment the kinds of hatreds and fears that they hope will allow them to stay in power. But hate-mongering has always been a temporary solution at best. King’s moral arc prevailed over such horrors as Nazism and the European and American slave trades, and it will prevail over today’s fascists.
Never forget that, as Richard Florida points out, America was founded on the progressive values of freedom, equality and individuality. As activists, it is our obligation and privilege to help America recognize and reclaim its vibrant progressive heritage. So . . .
Celebrate and honor your needs, and work hard to meet them.
Celebrate and honor the good in your society, and work hard to increase it.
Create a joyful, loving and supportive community around yourself.
Free yourself, so that you may better help others become free.
and Boston, MA