Reading time: 10 min.
Mary’s a voice coach, so I’m not expecting her to have me squat down, curl into a ball, and say ahh.
You’re a fern in the woods, she says, unfurl very slowly from the ground. As you move, allow that ahh to leave your body. Move up from the earth, through the feet, knees, thighs, hips, uncurl your back, let that ahh go, shoulders, neck, head reaching up to the sky.
I feel my whole body unscrunching, energy pouring through, resounding in some primordial ahh I never knew was in me. I feel suddenly stoned. My ahh morphs to a dozy wooah. There, Mary says, with the relaxed tone of one who’s seen all this before. Why is she giving this to me? This is my peace work, is the reply. Peace work, this?
This was 1999, when without knowing it I was on my way to activist burnout for what would be the first and, I still hope, last time. The signs must have been in my face. I was asked more often than usual, David, how are you? Fine thanks. I wasn’t lying, just mistaken. Like many others bound for burnout, I was drawing vitality from a sense of meaning in my work. But one cannot live on meaning alone! I also needed to eat, sleep, lark about.
Instead, I was tangled up in a somewhat solitary and inevitably impossible effort to stop a war. I didn’t mean to be, but Ivana, a friend from Kosovo, had called me out of the blue to ask what I could do to help, since I was working in a peace organisation in Brussels. Nothing, I said, they’re going to have their war. Just do what you can, said Ivana, and so I got going.
I couldn’t find collaborators among the Brussels NGOs, including the organisation I was working in, but I teamed up with an eccentric, savvy staffer in the European Parliament called Ernst. In the evening I’d carry on alone. I remember staying in the office until midnight, faxing NATO embassies with some peace proposals I’d cooked up in my head.
Ernst and I were getting somewhere – another story. But the longer I lived by a frenetic, emergency mentality, the more I felt my presence as a person drain away. A line from a Terry Callier tune – ‘Keep your heart right’ – kept coming back to me, though more as an accusation than an encouragement. I could barely feel my heart at all.
This early activism had quickly become a toxic concoction. I’d stirred a desire for peace in the world together with a neglect of peace in the heart. And however much energy I might throw at it, it was never going to be enough to stop the war juggernaut; what felt ‘too much’ for me was still ‘not enough’ for the world. Many have had to reckon with the same predicament: how to do, without being done in.
One way around is to give up on political action entirely. I’ve often heard that if you’re looking for the real peace work, don’t go looking in the world, but in yourself. The most we can do is to ‘self-actualise’ for the common good. Or, since the world we see is merely a reflection of our own consciousness, just to cultivate your consciousness is the truly political act, and it’s enough.
But is it? I wonder how it would sound to Palestinians right now as they sift through the rubble of the Israeli bombing: that what we all need to do is self-actualise. I hope that ‘keeping our hearts right’ means keeping them open to what Palestinians say they need: official recognition of the State of Palestine, an end to arms sales to their occupiers, a boycott of Israeli goods, and so on. They’re not asking us to refine our consciousness, they’re asking us to do something.
I think the question of how to be involved in the world can’t be wished away, nor the plainly conscientious, if often guilt-addled, question of whether we are ‘doing enough’. But enough of what, for what – and for whom? What is the more that the question points to?
The answer that has you hurl yourself at the world, as I did in Brussels, seems desperate. But if the answer is to ‘work on yourself’ because it honestly feels like the only avenue you have, that rings of despair. Both ways are psychologically – and I think psychoanalytically – fraught. But at least both come from a desire to care, and frustration with powerlessness in the face of the world’s violence. And yet neither, it seems, is ‘enough’. So, what might be?
A starting point for me is a line from the writer Kimberley Curtis: the world ‘makes a claim on our lives’. What we do with that is up to us. One humane reply – a reply worthy of us as human beings – is to cultivate a commitment to the life in and around us. The commitment has an unfashionable name: ‘love’. But what love does in the political realm, perhaps particularly for people with little political power, seems not at all obvious. Love discovers itself through experiment.
I still think that by standing at the fax machine, repeatedly unjamming its clumsy thunk and whir in the small hours, I was involved in love, albeit in a pretty cack-handed way. But Mary’s lesson to me was that peace work is for the whole of life, and so it has to take many forms – evidently some surprising ones. By standing with my burning-out younger self, she was involved in love, too – unjamming my primordial ahh, if you like!
Mary’s work with me and others was, in a small way, answering the ‘claim’ that the world makes on our lives. As I see it now, she’d found a place for her gifts in hope’s ever-open-ended ecology – the life by which hope lives. And not in an accidental, casual way, but consciously, critically, and with some devotion. She was counting herself into the work of peace with an activism of her own kind.
Isn’t this a question for any of us: How can we count ourselves in? What gifts are ours to give for the healing and flourishing of the life in and around us, and for resisting its violation? Not so much What’s my activism? as if it were a private endeavour, but What’s mine to give?
I mentioned this last night to a friend, who said, Isn’t activism just hippies out struggling against everything because they’re not satisfied with anything? Well… sometimes! But we started this blog series with the place of the Palestinian mealtime in that society’s hopes of liberation. Palestinians know the necessity of an emergency mentality, but when the cooks bring through the meal each evening, that’s activism too. Cooking and sharing the meal belongs to hope’s work.
For me, our ecological crisis is serving up Mary’s lesson all over again. It’s laying bare the healing that our whole social body needs to do. ‘Hippies out struggling’ are both vitally necessary and also not enough.
If the crisis can be summed up as life pulled apart, then everything that helps to pull life together, or at least treats the fragments as if they matter, belongs in the response. This, I think, is a truly ecological response to a truly ecological crisis. And it means that any act, by anyone, that re-members our common life is activism now.
Indeed, our ecological predicament is, quite obviously by this point, not just a narrowly political crisis. It reaches into our economy, culture, democracy, every aspect of society. It helps, I think, to recognise it as a crisis of soul – of societies that, with an ever more tenuous sense of home, have been losing a feeling for what really matters and why.
Like any crisis, literally a ‘decisive moment’, this one confronts us with a question. For a long time, it’s been How can we emit less carbon? But it might be evolving, as it needs to, towards How can we still learn to live, as if for the first time? That would mean widening our attention beyond consumer choices and technologies, towards what seems to be the truly ecological heart of the matter: how we relate to ourselves, each other, and the earth, whoever we are, wherever we are, with whatever we have to give – and knowing why.
If this is indeed our situation, the question of ‘doing enough’ will have to evolve, also, beyond some flat notion of ‘doing more’. I don’t have a clear answer of my own – not in the sense of a ‘solution’ to a problem. Our best answer promises to be looser, messier than that. To accept, even enjoy, that we’re improvising. To gather our gifts and count them in, and to receive in turn. To wonder without knowing, and without needing to. And to learn, as we go along, what love means in our ecologically disturbed age. The idea of ‘enough’ remains elusive, but that’s not to say we can’t draw a little closer to it.
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And thanks to Caitlin, Irina, and Mary for reading over an earlier draft for me.
The next post in this series will probably take the theme of ‘enchantment’ – to get an email when it’s online, just add your email address and click Subscribe:
Reminder: Hope’s work, just out
Just out: a short book about hope… Hope’s Work: Facing the future in an age of crises, published by Darton, Longman and Todd. If you’d like a copy you can get a couple of quid off by ordering from here: hopeswork.org/book.
Small publishers like DLT rely heavily on publicity by word-of-mouth and social media, so if you read Hope’s Work and like it, please let others know. If you read it and don’t like it, you’d better tell them that as well. Either way, thank you for reading.