From the Book: “Be a force for good.”

I selected the phrases for my coloring book to say what I thought might be most important to others within the activist community.  But because the coloring book simply has the coloring pages without commentary, I thought I might use this venue to elaborate a bit on why I chose to include what I did.

“Be a force for good.”

It’s very easy to lose sight of your end goal when the process taps into our emotional centers.  Some of us tend to get focused on details, on small bits of the larger picture, and we derail ourselves in pursuit of those less important goals.  Some of us are easily detoured by our reactions to the reality around us, becoming inwardly focused instead of outwardly focused.  Some of us are quick to conflict with others who are, in the grand scheme, on our side but differ on smaller issues, giving more effort to besting our rivals than doing the important work at hand.

Our efforts should always be about doing the most good.  That’s not to say that the inner workings of the groups and movements of which we are a part are not important.  But they do, or should, take a back seat to the main goal of the work.

 

Cleaning the Corners

I’ve seen an increase lately in posts and comments about “focusing on the positive” and staying away from contentious issues like politics because things have gotten “ugly” and “negative”.  There is a popular idea that if we stop focusing on the “negative” things and only focus on the good in our lives, we’ll be happier or more fulfilled.

Underlying this, however, is a not-always-acknowledged supporting assumption that there is no point in arguing politics or talking about the things that get people upset.  That both sides are wrong, or neither point of view really matters, or that if one ignores the argument completely the choice can be avoided.

That, essentially, is what the “I refuse to be negative” point of view boils down to:  avoidance.  It’s a way of excusing oneself from dealing with a part of reality which brings stress and pain.  It’s a lot like cleaning only the parts of your house visitors will see and shoving the clutter and dirt into private rooms and dark corners.  For a while, nobody will realize you’re piling up dirty laundry and random junk in places out of sight.  But eventually you won’t be able to fit any more in those dark corners, the smell will draw attention, or someone will discover your dirty secret before you can stop them.

Ultimately, the negative is very real.  The consequences of conflicts are real.  And avoiding the battle doesn’t exempt you from being counted among the conquered.

Can we really build a spiritual practice or life philosophy which embraces only the things which make us happy and avoids those things which bring us stress and discomfort?  In the short term, maybe.  But over time, the ignored negative will grow and change while we are ignoring it until ignoring it is no longer an option.  At that point, a lifetime of focusing on the positive will have done nothing to prepare us for dealing with the negative we can no longer keep in the dark.

 

From the Book: “It is better to do good than to be right.”

I selected the phrases for my coloring book to say what I thought might be most important to others within the activist community.  But because the coloring book simply has the coloring pages without commentary, I thought I might use this venue to elaborate a bit on why I chose to include what I did.

“It is better to do good than to be right.”

I chose this phrase for two reasons.

First, I think it should be obvious how much of the state of our world is due to people being so sure that they’re right, so committed to a rule or dogma or belief, that they’re rendered unable to see the harm being done to others.  This addiction to being right is what fuels the belief that the disadvantaged or downtrodden must have brought it on themselves or that they somehow deserve that suffering.  Those beliefs and feelings have to go together because they justify each other.

So when we seek to help others, are we trying to help them be right or are we just trying to help them?  Are we avoiding helping people who we think have made the wrong decisions or chosen the wrong side?  Are we worried that if we help people persist in being “wrong” that we aren’t doing enough to fight for what’s “right”?

Second, I chose this phrase for the coloring book because I see too many people afraid to take action because they’re afraid of getting it wrong somehow, of not doing the most effective thing or joining the most important cause.  In a world in need of a vast amount of change and good work, where do you start?

It’s a lot like those of us who look around at our homes knowing they need to be cleaned and choose not to clean at all because we don’t have time right then to really tackle the whole job.

Not every act of goodness will change the world.  But every act of goodness changes a bit of the world for someone.  And that is more important than having chosen the absolute perfect way to do good in the world.

From the Book: “I am a small part of something big”

I selected the phrases for my coloring book to say what I thought might be most important to others within the activist community.  But because the coloring book simply has the coloring pages without commentary, I thought I might use this venue to elaborate a bit on why I chose to include what I did.

“I am a small part of something big.”

We usually have grand visions when we undertake philanthropic endeavors or activism.  We want to change the world.  We want to solve problems much larger than us.  We want to make a difference.

The reality of the goal and the struggle to get there, however, all too often makes us feel powerless, ineffective, and insignificant.  No matter how much we do, how much we contribute, there is always more to be done.  What we can give alone is never enough.  In fact, what we can give as part of a larger group is very rarely enough.

But we can also look back and see how other people like us have actually caused positive change.  Their actions become part of our historical narrative.  We hold some of them up as heroes.

The truth is that they, too, were merely small parts of something much bigger.  Their small acts, continued over time and beside like-minded allies, changed the course of cultural development.  And they, too, wondered if their visions would ever become reality.

In a very real way, every new movement or mission is a continuation of a larger movement: the constant evolution of humanity.  It is as important as it’s ever been for each of us to do what we can, to do what we feel compelled and called to do, as a part of humanity’s march of progress.  Even if we cannot see, in this moment, how things will turn out, we have to remind ourselves that even small contributions make a difference eventually.

Should Activism be the Center of Atheist Spirituality?

In a great many organized religions, some kind of community outreach or service is a main tenet.  Whether or not the spirit of such activities are put into actual practice is a completely different subject, but for many people that is the part of religion that they find somewhat essential.  Religions tell you how to treat others.  They present you with a code and a call to action.  Feed the hungry.  Love your neighbor.  Save the souls of the lost.

In most cases, these calls to service are made in the name of a higher power.  The downtrodden and needy are part of a universe made by a larger force and, in some capacity, entrusted to humans to take care of.  Therefore it is part of the job of the faithful to act as the higher power wants them to.  Of course, in some circles the understanding of atheist thinking is that, if there is no higher power to tell them to be good to each other, humans would just go around killing and stealing and certainly not feeding the homeless.

We know this isn’t true.

Still, if the directive to do good in the world on the behalf of a higher power is a major tenet and major draw of organized religion, doesn’t that suggest that humans have a generalized need to be of service?

I’ve not reached a functional definition or system to my version of spirituality without a deity, but over recent months it has occurred to me that activism and philanthropy in and of itself do a fairly good job of standing in for religion.  After all, the survival of our society, our species, doesn’t rely on the will of a bearded man in the sky, but on our actions here and now.  I can imagine no greater impetus for becoming active in something to improve the world for future generations.

From the Book: “I will listen when it hurts to hear”

I selected the phrases for my coloring book to say what I thought might be most important to others within the activist community.  But because the coloring book simply has the coloring pages without commentary, I thought I might use this venue to elaborate a bit on why I chose to include what I did.

“I will listen when it hurts to hear.”

Doing good is difficult.  So much work undertaken with good intentions to benefit others runs up against the objections and criticisms of those who see the situation from a different point of view.  The more strongly we feel about the mission we see ourselves working towards, the harder it often is to hear those criticisms and adjust our approach or point of view.  It’s one thing to be criticized by those who think they have better methods or motivations, but it’s quite another to be criticized by those we’re working alongside or even those we’re attempting to aid.

On paper, I think most activists agree that the point of view of the communities needing aid are among the very most important perspectives to hear.  Insisting on indulging our own images of what is needed results in wasted resources, intrusive and destructive actions, and unmet needs.  Our first instincts are often wrong.  In the days after 9/11 many rushed to donate blood, only to realize later that there were few injured survivors and that the real need was support of rescue personnel.  Mission trips send inexperienced but enthusiastic Westerners to minister to disadvantaged people in far flung countries, but often end up impeding the work of qualified philanthropic organizations in the process.   But too often we push our own visions and agendas despite valid objections because we want our contributions appreciated, our strengths utilized, our efforts acknowledged.  We don’t want to be told that our efforts are not inclusive, that our good intentions aren’t really helping, that we’re simply standing in the way.

It’s vitally important, though, to keep our ears and hearts open to what is being said.  Philanthropic activity and activism requires an intimate relationship with reality in all its aspects, and our efforts suffer when we become defensive of our own perspective.  It’s more important to hear others tell us how we could be more effective than it is to hear others tell us when we’re doing well.

The Challenge of Intentions

Like many, the results of the election shook me in ways I didn’t expect.  As a result, I’ve found my fighter tendencies surging forth, pushing me to do more, to stop sitting on the sidelines as the world moves past.  I know I’m not alone in this, which is good.

I also know, because many of those I know or interact with, that many of us who feel highly compelled to act, to change the world, to try and resist the shift we now see happening around us are feeling discouraged and ineffective.  How do we keep going when it seems nothing is working, nothing is changing?  Is it worth the effort to keep fighting?

Of course, I believe it absolutely is worth the effort.  I believe in our ability to make change in this world, but I also know that the change comes slowly.  That’s usually how change works in life.  It very often feels that we’re struggling against the tide, making little or no progress, until one day we catch sight of where we used to be and realize how far we actually have come.  Maintaining the will to struggle, however, is easier said than done, especially when the goal is so far off that it seems unattainable and the forces working against our progress are unrelenting.

In thinking about this, I was reminded of some very valuable discussion I had early in my forays into paganism regarding magic and intentions.  Essentially, when one sets out to do some kind of spellwork, the first step is to define the intention.  No matter how you imagine the mechanism of the universe works to bring your wishes to life, you have to be able to precisely define your wishes or you won’t get the result you really want.  You may want to be wealthy, but the concept of “wealth” is not precisely defined.  Defining what you mean by wealthy leads to profound questions about what you want to use your wealth for and how you believe it will change your life.  And that should, ideally, get you to think about why you think those changes are the priority in your life and whether there are other ways to manifest those changes without a sudden windfall.  In the end, as you follow the train of thought to its root, you’ll come upon your true intention.

As a personal example, I used to put a lot of effort into becoming successful and well known for some kind of artistic endeavor on my own part.  I wanted to be a successful artist, both in terms of financial security and having a place of respect in the art world.  Eventually, through a great deal of soul-searching born of repeated failures and overwhelming self-doubt, I realized that what I imagined was that reaching that place of fame and fortune would allow me a particular lifestyle which included the resources to support my hobbies and whims as well as the social position which would bring me a circle of friends and an active social life.  When I realized that, it became quite clear that what I wanted was quite attainable by many other means.  My real intention was to make a decent wage at a job which allowed me time and freedom to do what I wanted to do in my off time, and to cultivate strong friendships with people who had similar interests to mine.  I didn’t need to be wealthy and famous to get friends if I simply put the effort into my relationships that I’d previously put into chasing success as an artist.  And the amount of money I needed to make to buy craft supplies and take a trip here and there and have a living space where people could come hang out wasn’t really very large.  Furthermore, all the force of will I put towards the original intention would not have likely brought me what I wanted.  I still needed to cultivate relationships and I would have been battling against the demands of creating art to fund my lifestyle.

This idea dovetailed really well with a discussion about pagan ethics, particularly the idea that “doing no harm” is not as straightforward a concept as one might think.  What might be a benefit to one person, for example a windfall of money for someone struggling to pay debts, might be damaging to another person, for example that same windfall to someone with a gambling or spending problem.

So what does this have to do with feeling helpless and powerless?

When we feel like our efforts to change the world aren’t getting us anywhere, maybe it’s time to look at our goal.  How are we wanting to change the world?  What does progress look like?  Exactly what did we hope that our efforts would bring forth?  If we dissect those hopes and intentions and dig down deep, it’s likely that much more reachable goals will emerge.

As for me, I’ve decided that I must pick small things, small goals, and focus on those small steps.  And I’ve come to the conclusion that, if nothing else, my goal has to simply be to not be quiet.  To make my voice heard.  I believe that perhaps the biggest changes in our world come when those who are used to being shouted down raise their voices and make themselves visible, because as long as we are quiet and invisible it’s easy for others to discount us and disenfranchise us and brush us aside.  So I want to be loud, and get others to be loud.  And that’s it.  Setting my intention at “be loud” rather than “remove injustice from the world” makes it far easier to stay motivated and in motion.

The world will never be perfect.  It will never be what each of us wants it to be.  And if we set those ideals as our goals, failure is assured and it will always feel useless to try.