Thursday, May 31, 2007

Glowing Embers

In response to the discussion a few days ago about how to avoid the fate of so many good-hearted people who get beaten down by years of fighting the good fight for peace, justice, and equality, Ron Zucker wrote some wonderful words and he's graciously allowed me to post them.

I am a political activist for a living. I work and live for change. Yet, I still laugh and love. I have not grown bitter. I've learned two explanations for the difference between those of us who can do it and those who can't.

the first comes from my best boss and mentor ever, Amy Isaacs of Americans for Democratic Action. Amy used to tell me that what makes us able to survive is the difference between fire and embers. If we see injustice and things wrong and it lights a fire in us, we are the sorts who might be great at changing things, but we'll burn out. (Ms. Sheehan comes immediately to mind.) We will work and fight. But losing takes too great a toll. We can't keep on going.

On the other hand, those of us who can keep it as embers, burning always, are able to stoke up a flame when we need to. But the rest of the time, we can see the joy and the humor in life.

That was her theory, and it worked to predict who would stay in political organizing and who would leave.

My own idea comes from a different source. The Ethics of the Fathers is the Jewish book of ancient wisdom of a certain sort. And in it, it says, "It is not incumbent upon you to finish the work. But nor are you free to absolve yourself of responsibility for the work."

I do what I do not because I want to. I do it because I have a responsibility to use my talents and my interests in a constructive way. For some, those talents and interests intersect in being a professor. Or a programmer, or any other job. My interest in political organizing meets my talent for writing and arguing in being an organizer and lobbyist for a living.

And sometimes, sir, I get as tired as can be of doing it. I have no doubt that there are days you wake up and just don't feel like teaching, too. But it's what I do. It's what I'm good at, and it's something I long ago decided I'd rather do than anything else I might be good at.

Those are the hard days, the bitter days. Those are the days I call friends who are staffers on the Hill and bitch out their bosses for voting wrong. Or I write particularly nasty organizing pieces to my members. And I might or might not send that piece, but I do need to write it.

Even the best of us can't help but have days that we are overwhelmed. It's been 4 years, and we're still at war in Iraq. I've been working for universal health care for 25 years, and yet my friends still don't have insurance. On those days, I am bitter and angry. At myself for not finding a way to win, at the politicians for not voting right, at my fellow Americans for not voting right or expressing themselves correctly or (worst of all) for not agreeing with my obviously correct beliefs and policy preferences.

And then I remind myself. It's not incumbent on me to finish the work. And I do today's work. I let tomorrow's work go. I know it will take care of itself. And I make it a point, on those days more than others, to find something in politics and international issues that makes me laugh, or that makes me proud. I need to remind myself.

It's not always easy. But I'm old now (42, which is VERY old for DC) and still trudging along. I make what change I can. I fight for what I believe is right. And I love what I do.

If I can't do all of those things, I need to quit, to leave this career choice. I haven't yet. I still know that I should do better. But I also know that I will. That we will do better.

After all, none of us are free to absolve ourselves of the responsibility for the work. Eventually, we'll get the work done. Or, at least, get closer.

Thank you, Ron. Your sentiment reminds me of my favorite quotation from Arlo Guthrie,
It's important for a young person to realize that he or she is not the beginning or end of a thing, but somewhere in the middle of a long chain of people working to make this world a better place.
Again, thank you Ron for your words and your work.