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LIVING WELL WHILE DOING GOOD
By DONNA SCHAPER
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2007 Donna Schaper
All rights reserved.
Living well while doing good is first of all an interpretive art in which we think, and then act. Both the living well and the doing good are one action richly connected, like a labyrinth—inseparable, married, in deep fear of divorce or estrangement. Inner needs outer the way outer needs inner. When third-world activists speak of "decolonizing the imagination first," they teach us to take control of our own lives and our own definitions and our own numbers. We are to measure ourselves. We are to evict the colonizers, whom action activists think of as "external" but which are also "internal." We both take control of ourselves and release control of ourselves; like the labyrinth, they are one action. We measure what little we may dare call success in changing the world, and then we let the rest go. We walk into action and we walk out from action into being.
The key strategy to living well while doing good is to simplify. I call the strategy "simplifiers," using a play on words. We make "simple fires"—we tame our passions. We have simultaneous light and warmth. We measure how much of a blaze we need. Many think there is no way to live well while doing good; I think just the opposite. There is no way to do good without living well.
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This book uses four central images to ground and inspire sustainable passion for social and personal transformation. Why images? Images help us to draw pictures of the life we want. Some people translate the verse from Genesis that says, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures," as "Let the waters draw pictures" (1:20). I use images and draw pictures as a way to train myself spiritually to be one who lives by the warmth of a simple sustainable fire.
The first image I want to use is that of the high-wire act: we learn to become "catchable" and "flyable," the words trapeze trainers use when a person is first allowed to fall into flying. Catchable is the experience of the grace that follows risk: we don't exactly fly so much as we give ourselves the permission to try to do so. We attempt what at first feels impossible. We fly as able- bodied flyers because we risk the possibility that we will be caught. "First we jump, then we get our wings." Ray Bradbury said something close to that when asked why he thought he could be a great writer. He had to try before he knew he could. Many of us stay on the far side of the high wire and just quiver because we don't have the courage to risk. To do good or to accomplish social transformation we must risk. We must move out of our comfort zone, try to walk the high wire, try to do what most people think can't be done. We fall into flying, and when we do so, we learn that we are catchable. Social change is not magical. It comes from the great combination of training and courage. We learn balance—and that balance allows us to walk the high wire between seemingly opposed matters, like living well and doing good.
We "fly through the air with the greatest of ease" when we get the right combination of living well and doing good. If all we do is "doing good," we would begin to look ridiculous, and with good reason; if all we do is "living well," we are living selfishly. Most of us want both: we want to do good in a way beyond caricature and self-righteousness; we want to live well in a way that is not selfish. The trapeze artist falls gracefully; the high-wire walker tries not to fall. Both are part of the image I imagine here.
The second image I want to propose is based in gathering wood and lighting fires. At one point I was becoming more deeply afraid about the energy crisis in America. I saw train wrecks everywhere I looked—whether it was the war in Iraq or the high prices of gasoline. At their heart these interacting disasters threatened my way of life as a middle-class American—as well as embarrassing my reputation as a successful social activist. The President told me to "drive less" and all I could do was laugh cynically—such individual solutions to systemic problems always amuse me. So one day I awoke a bit earlier in order to get on my bicycle and go collect twigs, a nature errand that is also a low-cost form of personal entertainment. I was particularly interested in apple wood, as it gives off a great smell. I would bike along, picking up good pieces of wood, filling up my bike basket. I realized I was ritualizing an act of hope. I was actually doing political liturgy—making pictures of the world I wanted. Did my activity resolve the energy crisis or stop the melting of the ice cap? I think not! But it did give me a way to touch the problem without getting burned.
I am sure I thought of this wood strategy because of a gift a friend had given in the midst of my despair. She was a neighbor in Miami. I had come from New England, and did not understand the woodlessness of the tropics. There was a beautiful fireplace in our house and I complained to her about not being able to find wood. Many mornings I would wake early to take my dog out, after she had taken hers out, only to find a pretty stack of four or five pieces of wood in my driveway, artfully assembled. Her picture moved me toward a measured simplicity.
These little trips were my way of "keeping a good light"—what they used to say about lighthouse-keepers. The third image for me is that of keeping a good light, of being a good lighthouse-keeper. Personal and social transformation are not firecrackers. They are not sporadic. They are long term. Lighthouse-keeping joins twig-gathering and high-wire walking to round out my imagistic method of living well and doing good. These images do give me a way to pray for a solution and to act one out in fairly silly ways. They give me my little fire to light at the end of my day. Most important of all, my ritual of twig-gathering transformed the source of my activism from sarcastic bitterness and despair to simple hope. I was able to imagine myself as a lighthouse-keeper and a high-wire walker, all through the simple act of gathering twigs.
While I do try to drive less, give money to organizations to fight for the environment against automobiles, attend endless meetings, read endless articles—while I activate my activism—I am also activating my spirit. Social change flows from "lit" spirits, not just from hard work. Working from simple images allows me to keep simple fires; it allows me to stay lit.
A fourth image rounds out my training in these images I use to become who I want to be. It is that of the firefly, which I see as the act of grace and the catalyst that keeps us going when we fall off the wire or lose our light. In June, our farm in Amherst is full of fireflies: the entire backyard lights up like a Christmas tree. The magic is even more beautiful to me because I remember watching my three children and the neighbor children chase the fireflies, night after night, and always fail to catch them.
The first three images all depend on something I have to do, but this last is all about being, not doing. We must sit still long enough to see the firefly fly by. My activist husband and I often say we wait for the next wave of social change. When it comes we want to surf it.
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Our dilemma is simple enough: how do we live well while doing good? Do we save or savor the world? Which do we do today? Which tomorrow? I am not alone in this struggle. In his New Yorker story called "My Bird Problem," Jonathan Franzen describes it this way: "This was the scenario I had been at pains to avert for many years: not the world's falling apart in my future but in feeling inconveniently obliged to care about it in the present." Can you be well while doing good? Are simplicity and peace the opposites of activism and passion? Or are these sometimes opposites and sometimes friends? If so, how do we maximize the friendship and minimize the alienation? Is balance possible?
The balance comes from lighting simpler fires. It means doing small things well and fearing large things poorly done. It means fearing grandiosity above all. It means knowing what an enemy self-righteousness is to the activist, who must do less in order to achieve more.
An illustration: I once moved out of a house in Chicago because I couldn't stand the ugliness of the neighborhood anymore. I was deep in an activist period that required all my actions to be politically correct; I had to live in the right kind of neighborhood and think the right kind of thoughts and be with the right kind of people. I had taken my passion too far. My own personal morality had turned me into a self-righteous prig. I wanted to be right way too much. On the corner of our street was a bodega that every Monday morning put up a sign that said: "Five rolls of toilet paper for a dollar." It would stay up until Wednesday, when the owner would take it down. Every time I rounded the corner and went past his store to my house, I went berserk. Why could he not put beautiful fruits and vegetables out in front of his store? How dare he uglify the neighborhood in this way? I spoke to him often, making my absurd suggestions. Finally, I had to leave the neighborhood—he couldn't accept my suggestions and I couldn't accept his sign.
Instead, I could have used the Tai Chi approach to activism, to act without forcing, to move without requiring results. Tai Chi moves through air as though through water with calm. It is surely not passive, nor is it hyperactive. It is a flow, acting without forcing. Instead of my foolishness in Chicago, I could have made friends with the owner of the bodega. From time to time a basket of potatoes might have appeared in front of the store. Then again, it might not have.
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Let me define some terms. By simplicity I mean a full day instead of a full week in one day. I mean a rich combination of action and reflection, merged daily in a pattern of living. I mean time alone, time in meetings, time with family, time to eat off real plates instead of from plastic containers.
By peace I mean being able to sleep at night. I mean deep confidence in who we are and what we are doing—with a simultaneous detachment from obvious short-term results. I mean a serious detachment from totalitarian attitudes toward social change by which we force our self-righteous will on the world: "We know what is good for you! That's why our lives are so miserable!" This message is too often both the surface and subliminal message of activism. Educator Paolo Freire declared it a disaster when the helper dominates the helped, but many activists engage that complexity daily.
By activism I mean acting to improve the world.
By passion I mean knowing that issues of justice and peace matter fundamentally, despite evidence to the contrary. There is no individual freedom from these matters. To imagine either that we are "self-made" or that "it is all up to us" is a fiction—the price of oil and global warming matter as much to our psyches and our social order as anything we do as individuals.
If simplicity is utter contentment, a contentment bordering on immorality in a world such as ours, passion is utter discontentment with the way things are. We have them both at the same time when we live as simple fires. We don't so much reduce our activist expectations as "right-size" them. We can't conquer the history of human selfishness personally. Getting our imagined victories and ourselves to a human size, a right size, joins humor in being a fine weapon against the peace of despair.
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Another case in point: I was on my way to the anti-war demonstration held on September 25, 2005, taking the train from New York City to Washington, D.C. Amtrak had a switch failure at Newark and the train did not arrive. The other demonstrators waiting for the train got very mad: "The government has stopped the trains." "They did this on purpose." My fellow travelers began to demonstrate in circles around Penn Station, with loud, squeaky voices resembling nothing so much as the unwelcome voice of a flight attendant on a bad speaker telling us something we already know while we are trying to sleep. The rest of the passengers were also delayed; they also had risen early to get there. Here was an enormous opportunity to win anti-war friends. Instead, we went into a grumpy paranoia, which only drove us deeper inside our own despair—while turning off the other passengers. Why does the anti-war movement shoot itself in the foot like this? Because it has failed to balance peace and passion.
It is very important for activists to be calm. The Gaelic word "calm" means to draw a circle around the soul, to protect it. That circle can both help and hurt us as we try to stay intensely alive and calmly happy. Learning to draw socially alert circles—to know when to open up to the stress of social change and when to close down—is the art of simplifiers. We light simple fires, not big ones. We keep them going through the night. We see ourselves as kindlers as much as burners.
As the first woman trained by Saul Alinsky and an almost gracefully aging hippie, as well as a mother, gardener, writer, and major goofballer, I have lived these questions for almost sixty years. I think I have a few answers, mostly learned from failures and restarts.
What do I know? Grace tells me to relax; justice pulls me to stressful caring. I live in between their push and pull, always knowing I am walking inner/outer home to the other "side." Grace keeps simplicity alive in me while a hunger for justice for others and myself often drives me.
Sacrifice, by the way, is not an answer to the question of balancing passion and simplicity. Activists do not have to sacrifice life well lived. Simplicity and passion are not oppo-sites. A person can live passionately and quietly at the same time. We are both to save and savor the world; in fact, neither works without the other. Those who only savor collapse into an obnoxious, selfish hedonism; those who only save devolve into guilt-mongering bores. They yell at Amtrak workers in New York train stations at dawn because it is unthinkable to them that they are not in control of the world.
I call the simplifying strategy "simple fires" because the paradox is important. Most people who claim they are "burned-out" have really never been lit; they smolder rather than burn. Simplifiers "do what we can, where we are, with what we have." Some of us do it hopefully, and others do it without hope. Simplifiers are also very careful about the words "success" and "failure." We don't expect to completely transform the world. In the Hebrew Bible, according to Abraham Joshua Herschel's interpretation, we are neither to save the world nor to be free from caring about saving the world. We are to be very careful not to be grandiose in our passionate care for the neglected and oppressed—including the parts of ourselves who are neglected or oppressed. We keep our vision well lit—and we also relax and play with the dog. How dare we play with the dog when people are suffering? We dare in the name of the very life that we are protecting.
We act for good while living well because we are—as Gandhi put it—the work we seek. If activists cannot demonstrate in their own lives the abundant justice they demand of the world, then there is no point in speaking because they will not be heard. Witness is the method that the activist uses to best effect, not telling others what to do, finger-wagging, guilt-tripping, or "sacrificing" for the cause. We are driven not by outer success but inner desire to make the world a better place. We act but we do not force. The desire to conquer is itself a form of subjection. We end up mimicking the behavior of the people whose ways we are trying to change.
Simplicity is the privilege of privileging the inner world. It is the art of sustainable choice. It is turning up the volume on some messages and turning it down on others. Simplifiers light and sustain simple fires. We see the beauty of a pile of small sticks in our driveway. Light and warmth and balance result.
Why start with money? Money complicates more things than anything else. We believe we need it and do many things that are not our own in order to get it. Many of our jobs are about money, not vocation. Much of our time is spent to secure ourselves even though our cupboards are groaning full. What we really need from money is a strategy, a way of thinking about it.
Once in South Africa, a limping boy, perhaps age six, approached me. He wanted a nickel. I gave it to him, only to be overwhelmed by fifty other children within minutes. To give each of them a nickel only meant the multiplication of misery and sorrow surrounding me in a Capetown Street. I also knew that I didn't have a nickel for all the children. Nor did I have compassion to match the crowd. I was no longer feeling compassionate about that boy; I had become afraid. I was scared stiff of the raw human need that surrounded me.
On that day, once I recovered from my fear of the children, I vowed to come up with principles on which to base the original compassion and generosity that I felt toward that child. My giving would no longer be spur of the moment. Indeed, now I say no to all beggars on behalf of long-term sustainable change against poverty. I do not give out even spare change. Nor did I give to the victims of Hurricane Katrina: so many others did that I felt I needed to stick to my long- term principle of transformational, sustainable change in the human condition. Have I become hard of heart? Or sharp of mind? Or both? No. I have become a right-sized human being who wants to both live well and do good. I want to do my part. I am even willing to do more than my part. I am not willing to spend my one precious life in guilt. Guilt insults God, that South African boy, and me. He does not need my guilt. He needs my money, well spent to create a good world for him and all his friends. He needs my money; what I need is principles to guide me.
Excerpted from LIVING WELL WHILE DOING GOOD by DONNA SCHAPER. Copyright © 2007 Donna Schaper. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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