Activism and Service, Fear and Necessity

Yesterday’s post about a renewed perspective on suffering that was illuminated during my yoga practice was a late night piece of writing about an issue that I usually push to the darker parts of my mind. It could have been four times longer and still would not have begun to encapsulate my thoughts on the tension between tending to the garden of one’s own soul and looking beyond one’s fences in hopes of effecting change in this troubled world.

The beautiful BlissChick spoke to some of the very issues that have me feeling so conflicted. I mentioned a speech that Bono gave to call attention to the neediest people in Africa, but I did not offer the usual caveats. I didn’t say I was taking with a grain of salt an address by a zillionaire superstar in love with the sound of his own voice who should clean up the streets of Dublin and downgrade his own jet fueled lifestyle. I let his wisdom stand and simply appreciated that a guy in orange sunglasses who may or may not have been wearing leather pants made me think. I spoke only of my recognition of destitution half a world away without offering myself, and perhaps my readers, the consolation of “thinking globally, act locally” with a strong emphasis on the local, be that defined as inside your own head or your own neighborhood. I let my heart bleed for the people of a distant continent without the qualifications that keep their poverty far enough away for comfort.

It is as if I am in a state of almost perpetual frustration when I stop looking into my own third eye and start seeing the man pushing a shopping cart full of his possessions through the streets of Poughkeepsie and when I let myself read about AIDS orphans. Of course, I am often trapped in a similar state of frustration when I am letting the world fall away and am diving deep within myself. The discontent I have with the state of the world is more than mirrored buy the unquiet nature of my own soul.

I thank BlissChick for sharing her experience with making a difference at a local level, and reminding me of its importance. Thing is, I have yet to be successful at finding a way to reach into the community to make that sort of a difference. There are always so many excuses: the lack of time I currently have for creative projects and soul work, family commitments, a phobia of those large busted, overly-efficient women in charge at soup kitchens who you to scrub pots with a worthless sponge even though your blouse is dry clean only (I admit, I have an inner princess who is a bit of a scaredy-cat in such situations). There is an unnameable fear that must be a sign of something unresolved in myself. And that gives me two options: continue to stay at home and work on this elusive issue or just face that fear and watch it evaporate under the light that’s generated when I help someone else.

I found what Bono had to say compelling because he freely admitted that America has its own troubles and that we could gain much by focusing our activism and resources here at home. When we are already awake to crisis, however, why not also challenge ourselves to look a little further? He said:

When America looks outside of itself, its view of itself is never clearer. Its faith in itself is never firmer. Its purpose is never stronger.

As vital as it is to work deeply on our psyches and our souls, we are also at risk of falling to narcissism and protectionism both on the individual and national scale. I can translate Bono’s rallying call into doing something as little as writing a letter to Congress on behalf of the people of Africa, but I can go further and move outside of myself and finally show up to help at that battered women’s shelter.

All of these points do not add up to a cohesive thesis, but they reveal that this inner work I am doing needs to be accompanied by a willingness to move outside of myself. I need to break the barriers I have created that were formed of a belief that my prosperity is so fragile it might shatter in the face of another’s need. I must realize that I am a hell of a lot stronger than I let myself believe, and I have to think America might just be a whole hell of a lot stronger than we are letting on.

(Heady stuff, this, but I was able to stop in the middle of this harangue because this song came on. It always reminds me of my Nanna and tells me that no matter what happens, she’s always looking over my shoulder. “The world has lost her way again, but you are here with me…”)


4 thoughts on “Activism and Service, Fear and Necessity

  1. blisschick October 26, 2008 / 8:57 pm

    I love your description of the woman running the soup kitchen. Here it would be a very short-haired, stern nun, confusing me without her habit! 🙂

    This is all such difficult stuff. I go back and forth on it all the time, convinced that I missed the boat cause I never went to medical school to be something “really” important like a doctor. (And I write about this tomorrow thanks to you.)

    Getting over your own fears about helping might be easier, Marisa, if you do something that is uniquely you. I wonder, for example, if you ever thought of “service” in terms of sharing your love or reading and writing with women in a shelter. Everyone needs beauty and self-expression. I think teaching someone that they have a voice is probably some of THE most important work that anybody could ever do. 🙂

  2. girlwhocriedepiphany October 26, 2008 / 9:06 pm

    You just gave me shivers – and I really don’t think that is because we’re miserly with the oil heat! Again, thanks for being there as I work through this stuff, and thanks for giving me the image of actually sharing myself to help others. I was born with a congenital defect: I have a profound shortage of elbow grease (just ask my family when it is my night to do dishes). You really have helped me frame the whole idea in a new and beautiful way. I couldn’t sleep last night for thinking about becoming a literacy volunteer. How did that never occur to me? Oh well, don’t ask why… My gratitude, as ever.

  3. blisschick October 27, 2008 / 7:55 pm


    I am soooooo glad that that helped, and Hmmmm…I wonder why you never thought of it that way? Could it be because as artists/writers we demean our contribution and therefore never consider it as valid service? 🙂

    Also I got this in my email today — a quote from The Thomas Merton Center for Contemplative Living, and I thought of you. He wrote this around 1960 (scary how much worse it is NOW):

    I fear the ignorance and power of the United States. And the fact that is has quite suddenly become one of the most decadent societies on the face of the earth. The body of a great, dead, candied child. Yet not dead: full of immense, uncontrolled power. Crazy.

    If somebody doesn’t understand the United States pretty soon-and communicate some of that understanding to the United States-the results will be terrible. It is no accident that the United States endowed the world with the Bomb.

    The mixture of immaturity, size, apparent indulgence and depravity, with occasional spasms of guilt, power, self-hate, pugnacity, lapsing into wildness and then apathy, hopped up and wild-eyed, inarticulate and wanting to be popular. You need a doctor, Uncle!

    Thomas Merton. Turning Toward the World

  4. girlwhocriedepiphany October 28, 2008 / 12:31 pm

    There is that twisted martyr complex that says “service” must be something that takes you out of your comfort zone and shows you that doing good should be hard. Isn’t the worst tasting medicine supposed to be better for you? Thankfully not any more! It still floors me that I only associated volunteering with uncomfortable situations… Oh the baggage!
    And thank you for the Merton quote. I am sensing a post may be forming around his rather chilling statements. What a visionary.
    Thanks & blessings,

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