Saturday, July 26, 2008

Embrace your inner misfit

I can't imagine two people who have had a bigger impact on the struggles of the left than Tom Hayden and Naomi Klein. Would you be interested in knowing what motivated them to become activists? Or hear them have a conversation on topics like:

Something worth giving your life to
Making ripples
Blending journalism and activism
Online activism and street activism
Walking towards the fear
Embracing your inner misfit

Thanks to the work of This Brave Nation, that's possible. Here's the video of that conversation (its about 25 minutes).

You can find the video here

As a bonus track, I'll just add that Brave New Foundation has teamed up with Cenk Uygur from The Young Turks to produce a weekly show called Meet the Bloggers (think blogger version of "Meet the Press"). Here is the first episode from last week featuring an interview with Ariana Huffington and a panel discussion including Liliana Segura, Baratunde Thurston, and Marcy Wheeler on whether or not Karl Rove should/will go to jail for contempt of Congress.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Turtle, Crevasse, and River

What do a turtle, a crevasse, and a raging river have in common? I don't know. Perhaps you can tell me after reading these words of wisdom that, for some reason, came together in my mind today.

The Turtle
by Mary Oliver

breaks from the blue-black
skin of the water, dragging her shell
with its mossy scutes
across the shallows and through the rushes
and over the mudflats, to the uprise,
to the yellow sand,
to dig with her ungainly feet
a nest, and hunker there spewing
her white eggs down
into the darkness, and you think

of her patience, her fortitude,
her determination to complete
what she was born to do -
and then you realize a greater thing -
she doesn't consider
what she was born to do.
She's only filled
with an old blind wish.
It isn't even hers but came to her
in the rain or the soft wind,
which is a gate through which her life keeps walking.

She can't see
herself apart from the rest of the world
or the world from what she must do
every spring.
Crawling up the high hill,
luminous under the sand that has packed against her skin.
she doesn't dream
she knows
she is a part of the pond she lives in,
the tall trees are her children,
the birds that swim above her
are tied to her by an unbreakable string.

From The Love of Impermanent Things by Mary Rose O'Reilley.

This country has puzzled me since 1960, when I belatedly began to think. Where did we get the idea that we are entitled to be pain free and worry free, that accidents must always be someone's fault, that all cancers should be gotten in time, that babies should be born flawless, and that death could be relegated to the back burner? What is the implicit idea about being human here?... Under the rock of every fear is the refusal to accept the contractual conditions of being human. I don't know why I came into the world or where I will go when I boil over on the back burner, but I know that I was born into a condition of radical instability...The only way to overcome fear is to accept without equivocation the worst it can propose, belay your ropes, and step across the next crevasse. We have no choice, anyway, about stepping.

And finally, from the Hopi Elders.

This could be a good time!

There is a river flowing now very fast.
It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid.
They will try to hold on to the shore.
They will feel like they are being torn apart, and they will suffer greatly.

Know the river has its destination.
The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off toward the middle of
the river,
keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water.

See who is there with you and celebrate.

At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally,
least of all ourselves!
For the moment we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt.

The time of the lonely wolf is over.
Gather yourselves!

Banish the word struggle from your attitude and vocabulary.

All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.

We are the ones we have been waiting for.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Drum Major Instinct

I would suppose that most of us have heard the following quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.

Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

But I wonder how many of you, like me, did not know that this quote came from a sermon with the same title as this essay? Yes, MLK was talking about The Drum Major Instinct when he said that.

Yesterday I read the sermon, and I'd like to share some of it with all of you. He gave the sermon on February 4, 1968 at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, exactly 2 months before he was assassinated.

Dr. King starts the sermon by quoting from the New Testament in Mark 10:35 where James and John ask Jesus if they can be seated on his right and left hand in the coming kingdom. Jesus responds by saying:

But whosoever will be great among you, shall be your servant: and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all.

Dr. King notes that Jesus did not criticize James and John for asking the question, much as most of us would, by suggesting it was selfish or arrogant. Rather, he affirms the desire, but talks about a different way of achieving the goal. Dr. King says:

But before we condemn them too quickly, let us look calmly and honestly at ourselves, and we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance. That same desire for attention, that same desire to be first. Of course, the other disciples got mad with James and John, and you could understand why, but we must understand that we have some of the same James and John qualities. And there is deep down within all of us an instinct. It's a kind of drum major instinct...And it is something that runs the whole gamut of life.

He goes on to list all the ways this drum major instinct has influenced individuals, organizations and nations in negative is twisted by marketers to sell us goods; it motivates people to live beyond their means; people distort what they say and who they are to get attention; it leads to exclusivism and racism; and it leads nations on a quest for supremacy and ultimately to war.

Dr. King then returns to how Jesus responded to James and John:

But he reordered priorities. And he said, "Yes, don't give up this instinct. It's a good instinct if you use it right. It's a good instinct if you don't distort it and pervert it. Don't give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do."

In the end, Dr. King talked about his death (he seemed so prescient about what was coming) and what he would want said at his eulogy:

I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.

I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.

I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question.

I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.

And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.

I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.

I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.

My soul needed to hear these words yesterday. So I thought I'd share them with you on the chance that they might mean as much to you as they did to me.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

May you live in interesting times

This old Chinese proverb is said to be a curse. I suppose that may be true, but we only live in the times in which we live. History will have to be the judge long after we're gone about whether or not that was a curse.

According to Wikipedia, Robert F. Kennedy was one of the first in the United States to use this proverb at his Day of Affirmation Address to students at the University of Capetown in June 1966. The main message of this speech can perhaps be found in these words of his:

So the road toward equality of freedom is not easy, and great cost and danger march alongside us. We are committed to peaceful and nonviolent change, and that is important for all to understand--though all change is unsettling. Still, even in the turbulence of protest and struggle is greater hope for the future, as (wo)men learn to claim and achieve for themselves the rights formerly petitioned from others.

He then goes on to list four dangers that will be faced in this struggle.

First, is the danger of futility: the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world's ills--against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence. Yet many of the world's greatest movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single (wo)man.


The second danger is that of expediency; of those who say that hopes and beliefs must bend before immediate necessities. Of course, if we would act effectively we must deal with the world as it is. We must get things done. But if there was one thing President Kennedy stood for that touched the most profound feelings of young people around the world, it was the belief that idealism, high aspirations, and deep convictions are not incompatible with the most practical and efficient of programs--that there is no basic inconsistency between ideals and realistic possibilities, no separation between the deepest desires of heart and of mind and the rational application of human effort to human problems.


A third danger is timidity. Few (wo)men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.


For the fortunate among us, the fourth danger is comfort, the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who have the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. There is a Chinese curse which says "May he live in interesting times." Like it or not we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also more open to the creative energy of (wo)men than any other time in history. And everyone here will ultimately be judged--will ultimately judge her/himself--on the effort (s)he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which her/his ideals and goals have shaped that effort.

I hope Kennedy wouldn't mind that I adjusted a few of his words to ensure that we are all included.

I believe that if Kennedy were alive today, he would agree that we too, are living in interesting times. And I believe that he would echo these four dangers as those that we once again face today. To me, the root of futility, expediency, timidity and comfort are all the same...fear. And so, the anecdote to these dangers is courage. But not the kind of courage that simply denies fear, rather the kind that transcends fear with our own sense of power combined with vision. As Audre Lorde said:

When I dare to be powerful - to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.

I'll leave you with the words of one of my greatest heroes, Maya Angelou.

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