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Joy as an Agent of Social Change – Really?

Joy as an Agent of Social Change – Really?

My mentor James Baraz reminded me the other day of the wisdom of:

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. – Dr. Howard Thurman

Dr. Thurman was as African-American minister, theologian, author, the co-founder of The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, the first inter-racial, inter-faith church in the nation. (Still going after 75 years.) And a key leader in social justice movements in the 1940’s-1950’s, a principal architect of the modern non-violent civil rights movement, and key mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I first heard that quote when I was I was a social justice activist in the 1970’s (and met Dr. Thurman several times)  And that wisdom is just as relevant and just as poignant now as all of us search for how to resiliently engage with the issues of social injustice, economic inequity, and the ravages of the pandemic.

Dr. Tiffany Jana, co-author of Overcoming Bias, spoke of “liberation through joy” last week in her interview with Tami Simon for Sounds True’s series on “Healing Racism: Embrace Diversity in Our Personal Lives, Our Communities, and Our World, a free public offering as Sounds True begins a two-year training on diversity, equity, and inclusivity for their 100-employee organization.

When Tami suggested joy is the last thing people associate with anti-racism work, Dr. Jana replied, “As a black person, this world is not oriented to my joy. So just being who I am and having a smile on my face, just being who I am and cultivating and breathing joy, is a radical act of revolution.  This world isn’t oriented toward black joy and black liberation.

It is so important that we find the things that give us life, if we think about this moment in the midst of COVID, in the midst of this racial upheaval, it is so imperative that we find our joy and breathe into it. Otherwise we run the risk of being overwhelmed by what is happening, the stress of it all.”

Perhaps counter-intuitive to consider, as I did in last week’s Tiny Glimmers of Joy and Love Build Resilience, Too, that joy and aliveness are key to being resilient over the long haul for coping with anything, anything at all, including working for social justice and social change.

Again the line from Jack Gilbert’s poem A Brief for the Defense:

We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.

How do we find that joy, that aliveness?

I began a practice a few weeks ago of looking at one petunia. One. Not a whole flower bed. Savoring the miraculousness of just one flower blooming its heart out. One moment of witnessing a squirrel leaping safely from a telephone wire to a small tree six feet below. Sharing the joy and aliveness of the recovery of a friend who fractures a bone in her leg leaping over a puddle, 12 weeks of careful rehabilitation, now able to walk three miles on a park trail again.

People finding joy and aliveness in gathering with book club friends at outdoor picnic tables six feet apart.  Parents finding joy and aliveness in providing hiking camps, biking camps, science camps for their children and neighbor’s children over the summer. People finding hope and encouragement in the WinWisconsin campaign to restore capable and integrous leadership to this country in the November presidential elections. [Watch the full WinWisconsin June 11, 2020 webinar with Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach, and Van Jones here.]

People sharing laughter and tears by Zoom as they repair thousands of masks for first responders, as they watch an inspiring and provocative play reading of Polar Bears, Black Boys, Fringed Prairie Orchids [all endangered species] by the black theater company Playground, as they find purpose, meaning, aliveness in safely, socially distant marching and protesting for Black Lives Matter.

Deep wisdom from role models of resilience, aliveness, and effective engagement with the struggles of the world.

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium. It will be lost. The world will never have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how it compares to other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

– Martha Graham

You don’t need to do everything. Do what calls your heart; effective action comes from love. It is unstoppable, and it is enough.

– Joanna Macy

May you find your source of aliveness and joy and rejoice in engaging with the struggles for change in the world from there.

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