Author: Madelyn George
I often cry when I read the news, or listen to news on the radio, so more often than not I simply don’t read, or don’t listen because I don’t have the energy or the time to have my heart broken every morning. It is especially hard to have one’s heart broken by any number of stories of violence in the world, then to go about our daily lives only to find that most people one encounters don’t even know or care about the situation weighing so heavily upon one’s spirit.
I hear the anger and frustration in the voices of Friends who are moved to stand and speak during meeting for worship. They rise from the blanket of silence and their voices shake. They ask questions like, “How can we be so calm? Why aren’t we doing anything?” I hear a lot of anxiety about where we are headed – how young people may or may not be demonstrating their aptitude for the type of peace work Quakers are famous for. I guess I take it a little personally.
In the summer of 2009 before I began my last year of college, I received a fellowship from the American Friends Service Committee to organize peace action on my college campus. I was shocked. My pacisifism up until then had been the quiet type – I began attending Quaker meetings as a teenager, so it was more of a belief system than anything else that directed my interest in social change. Now, with one year of college left, I would finally have to start organizing, spreading the word, and actually talking with people about my beliefs.
Columbia College has a diverse student body and a sprawling urban campus. Getting students to show up for stuff, much less unite behind a cause was going to be a challenge, and I had absolutely no idea where to start. I went into the year knowing that young people have some unfortunate negative stereotypes associated with activism, and yet Columbia is full of individuals with a ton of creative energy and plenty of talent. At least there was potential.
Things started out slowly. Working with a faculty member and AFSC I helped to organize a die-in in response to the anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. At this point I had no student collaborators. On the day of the event I was disappointed that more people didn’t show up, but I made a couple of new friends and that was all it took to begin forming a group of student activists on campus. When it came time to lay down under the white sheet while the names of one hundred civilian victims of the war were read aloud, and felt my skin prickling and tingling. I had been so busy dealing with small details of the event that I hadn’t spent any time honoring its significance. I laid there on the sidewalk as the names were read, hearing people moving around me, hearing their varied responses, and I silently expressed my gratitude that all my friends and loved ones were still living.
I wish I could say things fell into place easily, but actually there was struggle involved every step of the way. I kept trying to predict what my peers were going to be interested in. What did they need in terms of peace activism on campus? I found myself feeling extremely discouraged when even my close friends just didn’t seem to care. But then I would remember that I still had complete control over my own actions, and I could only hope that by living the truth I believed in I might affect others without knowing it. This would last for a couple of days before I got discouraged again, and I kept finding myself completely depleted, exhausted, as if I had nothing left to give!
I shared my story of frustration and exhaustion along with these three major revelations to a hundred people at an AFSC benefit in the spring of 2010:
1. Individual responsibility is the only path toward collective responsibility. BE informed. There were so many things I knew nothing about. Up until recently, I chose my opinion, felt confident that it was the right one, and then never bothered to learn more. There is something to be said for being present, bearing witness.
2. Actions should evoke empathy. I had to redefine my goals as an organizer in order to affect people emotionally. Mass amounts of people showing up to an event don’t necessarily make it successful. It’s the change one person can undergo, the experience they have inside their bodies in an instant that’s important. Images are a great way to make this happen. Fewer facts. Fewer discussions. People need to be given a chance to feel something about injustice and unspeakable violence, and to feel a sincere love for peace.
3. Stay centered. Don’t forget about inner peace. It’s easy to get caught up in today’s cultural machinery – emails, networking, promoting. But we need to stay connected to the roots of our active pacifism so that as this country’s passionate peacemakers we don’t find ourselves exhausted before the job is done.
I am still not sure which forms of activism make the most sense for the current generation of young people, but I now have the tools I need to move forward as someone who makes at least a little more change than the passive person who used to do nothing but care. Caring is not enough, yet I have learned that it truly doesn’t take much to affect change by affecting others as long as we stay connected to the roots of our beliefs. These roots are internal, and must be nurtured with compassion before we can act with our full Light shining forth. We must nurture our inner light daily or our own quest for peace threatens to place us at odds with the world. And maybe it’s okay to let the news go unread, trusting that wherever there is violence in the world there is also beauty and love. The light that shines in us shines everywhere.